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The Daily Tar Heel

Free community college a possibility

An N.C. proposal would benefit the state’s top high school students.

North Carolina might beat President Barack Obama to offering free community college, at least for top performing high school students. 

A proposal moving through the state legislature is designed to benefit North Carolina high school students who graduate with at least a 3.5 GPA. If a student’s financial aid doesn’t cover the cost of community college, the state would fill in the gaps for two years. Legislators discussed House Bill 129 on Tuesday in an N.C. House committee.

“This will help us be a little bit more competitive with our neighboring states,” said Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, R-Alleghany, noting that Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee have similar programs. The bill sets aside $2 million to pay for scholarships in the 2016-17 fiscal year.

Elmore, a primary sponsor of the bill, said it would help build a stronger workforce to meet the state’s needs while also saving both the state and students a significant amount of money.

The state pays $13,419 per student annually for in-state tuition at UNC-system schools, while a year of community college costs the state $4,401.

The proposal builds on the state’s Comprehensive Articulation Agreement, which allows high school students admitted to UNC-system universities to defer admission for two years, enroll in any state community college and then transfer with junior status.

UNC’s version of the agreement is called the Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program, or C-STEP. Most students enrolled in C-STEP have done so for personal and academic reasons and not because of financial hardship, said Steve Farmer, UNC’s vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions.

Farmer did not comment directly on the legislation but said he would support a movement to provide more financial aid to college students.

“Anything that helps people finance the first two years of community college — whether it’s traditionally aged students or other students — I think it’s a great thing,” he said.

Mary Shuping, director of government relations for the N.C. Community College system, said she supports the bill.

“It would certainly help some students that might not be eligible for other financial aid like (the Pell Grants) but still would have a difficult time coming up with the money to attend college,” she said.

Rep. Kelly Hastings, R-Cleveland, said he’s concerned the proposal would put some of the state’s highest performing students in the same community college classrooms as students working toward technical certifications.

“You’re going to have to figure out ways to put an electrical wiring student who doesn’t care about English with other people who are actually going to have to perform at a college level so they can succeed at a four-year university,” he said.

Kayla Glenn, a UNC junior, transferred 64 credit hours from community college and entered UNC in the fall — and she said her experience at community college made the transition to UNC difficult.

“It was a good experience, and at the time I really enjoyed it, but school was a little bit of a joke, and I was able to work three jobs and work full time,” she said. “I came here, and now all I have time to do is school.”

Still, Glenn said she supports the proposal, especially for students who can’t afford four years at a university.

“I think that all around, it is a good idea if you want to go to community college and then transfer, especially for those who can’t afford a four year university — to be able to go to community college for a few years would be a great opportunity,” she said.

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