State Politics

Cooper wants to use lottery money to offer free NC community college tuition

N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper delivers his first State of the State address to a joint session of the state legislature in the House chamber of the Legislative Building in Raleigh, NC on March 13, 2016.
N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper delivers his first State of the State address to a joint session of the state legislature in the House chamber of the Legislative Building in Raleigh, NC on March 13, 2016. cseward@newsobserver.com

Roy Cooper is on a statewide tour this week to drum up support for making one of his campaign promises a reality – free community college tuition.

It’s increasingly hard to get a job with a resume that includes only a high school diploma, so Cooper says his plan will be good for economic development and for lifting more North Carolinians out of poverty.

“In my talks with business owners, I hear time and again that they have job openings but can’t find workers with the skills necessary to fill them,” Cooper said Tuesday on a visit to Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. “Making community college more accessible means more of our high school graduates can learn the skills they need to get good paying jobs.”

Cooper made the same pitch Wednesday in Goldsboro and has plans for stops Thursday and Friday, too.

Republican opponents of the Democratic governor, however, have been less enthusiastic about his plan. Former Gov. Pat McCrory attacked Cooper for the idea on the campaign trail this past fall, just as he attacked Bev Perdue for a similar proposal when she and McCrory were running for governor in 2008.

McCrory did work with legislative leaders to drop the tuition at three UNC system universities to just $500 a semester.

That $1,000 a year (plus room and board, books and fees) might still be out of reach for some students. Others might live closer to a community college, or wouldn’t qualify academically for a four-year school. Others might need only a two-year degree or a certificate.

It’s those people that Cooper’s plan is aimed at.

How it would work

All around the state, high school students enrolled in a public school can already take community college classes for free, through a program called N.C. Career & College Promise.

Cooper wants to expand that to any recent graduate with at least a 2.0 high school GPA, starting in the 2018-19 school year.

Community college tuition is $76 per credit hour, with a cap of $1,216 per semester.

Cooper isn’t saying the state should pay for every cent of that. Instead, he said students would apply to the colleges and see what financial aid they get through Pell Grants, scholarships and more. Then the state would pay for what’s left.

Tennessee implemented a similar program in 2015, which was passed by its Republican-led legislature with support from the Republican governor, Bill Haslem. Community college enrollment there rose more than 10 percent in the program’s first year.

Minnesota and Oregon have similar programs, too.

Lottery funding

Like Cooper’s proposal, Tennessee allows recent high school graduates to receive free tuition.

Tennessee spent $10 million its first year and estimates it will eventually spend $34 million a year. Cooper suggested spending $19 million to get the program, called NC GROW, started in North Carolina next year.

As in Tennessee, Cooper proposed using lottery funds.

Lottery proceeds in North Carolina now go to a variety of education programs.

Cooper’s plan would have to pass the Republican-controlled legislature. And while there was widespread Republican support in Tennessee for the idea, it isn’t a given here in North Carolina.

The conservative N.C. Civitas Institute said Cooper’s plan “is problematic for two reasons.”

For one, the group said it believes the very idea that the cost of college is what stops students from enrolling is flawed, especially at the community college level.

Civitas also took issue with the concept that state funding would only kick in after financial aid, writing: “Why wouldn’t this program be nothing more than a massive subsidy for middle- and high-income families who earn too much to receive aid but want to have taxpayers subsidize their child’s education?”

In Tennessee, however, officials said they believe it encouraged more low-income students to go to college. The program came in $2 million under budget in its first year, due to students receiving an unexpectedly high amount of need-based financial aid.

Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran

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