Diverting UNC-bound students to community colleges for two years would slow them down and fail to result in more four-year degree earners in North Carolina, according to a new analysis, but it would save the state and students money.
The N.C. Guaranteed Admission Program, or NCGAP, would also have a detrimental impact on rural, low-income and minority students and could jeopardize the future of some of North Carolina’s historically black universities, according to a report from the UNC system and the N.C. Community College System.
NCGAP became law last year as part of the state budget from the Republican-majority legislature. It’s supposed to start this year and be applied to entering students in 2017-18. Lawmakers said the goals of the program were to get more students to graduation faster, to decrease state costs and student debt, and to ensure that students gain at least a two-year degree in case they don’t graduate from a university.
The report was presented to the UNC Board of Governors on Thursday at a meeting at Fayetteville State University. The findings led chancellors and board members to conclude that NCGAP would result in negative consequences without achieving its goals. Overall, the UNC system could lose 2 percent of its enrollment that would be disproportionately minority students.
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“NCGAP seems to have unintentionally presented us with a prisoner’s dilemma – which students do we choose to lose?” said Anna Spangler Nelson, a board member from Charlotte.
More than that, said James Anderson, chancellor at Fayetteville State, NCGAP poses a moral issue for the state and its higher education systems.
Basically this data says that if we choose to go with this, in essence we’re going to eradicate diversity as we now know it. That’s important to understand, because I never thought I’d see the day when the UNC system would ever say that it’s going to dilute its commitment to diversity.
James Anderson, chancellor at Fayetteville State University
“Basically this data says that if we choose to go with this, in essence we’re going to eradicate diversity as we now know it,” Anderson said. “That’s important to understand, because I never thought I’d see the day when the UNC system would ever say that it’s going to dilute its commitment to diversity.”
Anderson said it isn’t fair to send students who qualify for admission to UNC campuses to community colleges instead, where open admissions mean that some of their classmates would be reading on a fifth-grade level. “That, to me, is just completely unethical,” he said.
There’s little doubt that sending more students through lower cost community colleges would save the state money – about $8,000 per student who starts at a community college and finishes at one of the 16 university campuses. Each student would save $1,750 in tuition and roughly $4,600 in loan debt.
However, the report points out, if fewer students make it to the university finish line, they would give up future earnings, and the state would miss out on tax revenue.
The law required that UNC and the community college system study the impact of the program and come up with ways to implement it.
The report suggested two possible methods of UNC deciding which students it would send to community colleges.
One method would raise the minimum admission requirements from a 2.5 to a 2.7 high school grade point average. Looking at the university system’s 2014 enrollment, that threshold would have knocked out about 500 North Carolinians and 100 out-of-state students. Eighty-three percent of them were non-white and 86 percent attended historically black institutions or UNC Pembroke, which is historically American Indian.
Under that scenario, the report predicted a worsening of the degree-attainment gap between low-income families and higher-income families.
Another approach would be for each of the 16 university campuses to simply accept 2.5 percent fewer applicants, instead directing them to community colleges. Based on 2014 data, that would have excluded 1,970 admitted students. However, presumably those students would have also gained admission to another UNC campus, thus shuffling the deck among students bound for UNC campuses.
“We think of this as kind of a cascading effect,” said Kate Henz, a UNC system associate vice president.
It could also create a “brain drain,” the report said, resulting in qualified students going out of state or to private universities.
Board members said this was simply unworkable and would be destructive to campuses.
“Look, You’re not going to tell me that if my kid is in that group I’ve got to send them to community college for two years,” said Champ Mitchell, a board member from New Bern. “There are too many other options out there, alright? I don’t have to do this. You can’t force people to do this, nor should we want to.”
Mitchell said the goals were well-intentioned but counterproductive.
We’ve got to fix this, and that is one reason why we so desperately needed President Spellings to come in ... So Margaret, go to Raleigh and fix this.
Champ Mitchell, UNC Board of Governors member from New Bern
“We’ve got to fix this, and that is one reason why we so desperately needed President Spellings to come in,” Mitchell said. “She has said, ‘I want to be the one to deal with the legislature. We need to speak with a unified voice.’ That’s great. So Margaret, go to Raleigh and fix this.”
Spellings was quiet on the issue Thursday. But last week she said in an interview that NCGAP is the wrong solution for a real problem.
“We believe, based on the research, there are better ways to solve affordability and completion than NCGAP,” she said. “I told my Republican friends, if we’re about consumer empowerment and choice, I mean, why in the world would we want to limit choice?”
Not everyone with UNC thinks NCGAP is a bad idea.
Marty Kotis, a board member from Greensboro said he supports NCGAP’s objective of increasing graduation rates.
“The UNC data shows that those people that transfer from the community colleges with a GPA of 2.5 to 2.7 have a six-year graduation rate of 67 percent, which is impressive,” he said. “That shows the community colleges are working well with us.”
But he added: “There are potholes we have to watch out for, but I believe that it could be pursued effectively. We just need to take certain steps to make sure it’s effective.”
The UNC board is expected to vote to accept the report Friday. The community college system board will review it in a couple of weeks, before sending it to the legislature.
In adopting NCGAP, lawmakers expressed the view that UNC system graduation rates were too low. The most recent six-year average graduation rate systemwide was 67.4 percent – 10 percentage points higher than the national average of 57.7 percent.
UNC leaders said a better approach is to monitor a series of changes in recent years that haven’t had time to bear fruit when it comes to improved completion rates. The community college system redesigned its curriculum and remedial courses in the past four years. In 2013, the UNC system raised the minimum admission requirement for high school grade point averages. And in 2014, the two systems implemented a transfer agreement aimed at smoothing the path for students who go from community colleges to universities.
Several members pointed out that NCGAP is already law, so it’s going to happen unless the legislature takes steps to change it in the coming session that starts in April. UNC is expected to push for that.
Spellings said she gives lawmakers credit for pushing for improvements.
“Here’s what it shows to me: that they’re struggling, they’re grasping for solutions to legitimate problems around affordability and completion and access,” the new president said. “And that’s righteous, and we need to help them figure out what the best solutions are.”