The General Assembly needs to defer its deferred admissions program.
In a provision tucked into the state budget last year, legislators declared that 6-year graduation rates at our state’s public universities are too low – even though they are nearly 10 percentage points above the national average.1
Legislators ordered the University and Community College systems to design a program called the NC Guaranteed Admissions Program, or NCGAP, to begin with the 2017-18 academic year.
Under the law, marginally qualified students who meet UNC admission standards would be directed to go to community college to obtain an associate degree. Then the student would be guaranteed admission to the four-year university.2
Imagine that letter: “You’re in. But you’re not.”
System leaders hired RTI International to analyze the proposal. The study concluded NCGAP would likely:
- Lower cost to the state (by about $8,000 per student, or $3 million a year) and the student (by about $1,750 in tuition).
- Reduce student debt by an average of $4,600.3
- Not increase the number of bachelor’s degrees, because research shows students who start at community college are less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree than students who start at a four-year school. The program might well result in fewer bachelor’s degrees, the study says.
- Hurt graduates’ lifetime incomes and the state economy, since graduates without bachelor’s degrees tend to have lower incomes;
- Disproportionately affect rural, low-income and minority students and jeopardize the future of some Historically Black Colleges and Universities.4 Analysis of 2014 enrollees who would be affected found that 86% were at the system’s five HBCUs or UNC Pembroke.5
Researchers studied two possible ways to increase graduation rates: Raising admission standards across the system from a minimum grade-point average of 2.5 to 2.7; or reducing acceptance rates by 2.5% at each of the 16 public universities.
Because many students apply to multiple UNC schools, reducing acceptance rates would just reshuffle students to other campuses, the study concluded. Of 1,198 students who would have been affected in 2014, 89% would be admitted to another UNC institution.
It also could create a “brain drain” as students choose private or out-of-state schools over community college. The study projected that at UNC Chapel Hill – which has an 89% graduation rate – 200 students would be deferred, and at NC State more than 250.6
State universities raised admission standards in 2013. The past five years have seen a 5% increase in 4-year graduation rates and a 3% increase in 6-year rates. But the study emphasized that the full effect of the increased standards won’t be known until 2019.7
The study also noted that University and Community College leaders adopted an agreement in 2014 to smooth transfers, and community colleges now require students to take a college transfer course.
As an alternative, the study suggests postponing NCGAP at least until 2018 to assess the impact of those reforms.8
University President Margaret Spellings agrees. Spellings credits legislators for targeting real challenges, but she says NCGAP is the wrong solution.
“We believe, based on the research, there are better ways to solve affordability and completion than NCGAP,” Spellings 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?”
Champ Mitchell, a UNC Board of Governors member, was more blunt.
“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,” Mitchell said. “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.”9
On March 18, the State Board of Community Colleges told legislators the 58 community colleges are prepared to accept NCGAP students. The board noted that community college transfers have the best graduation rate among transfer students in the UNC system, at 74%.
“The NCCCS has a strong and successful college transfer program, and our community colleges will welcome NCGAP participants,” wrote Chairman Scott Shook. “Our colleges are fully capable of successfully admitting and effectively advising these students, providing them a sound freshman and sophomore year, and guiding them along a successful transfer pathway to a university.”10
Community colleges might be ready, and NCGAP might offer short-term savings.
But it would have negative long-term results for students and for North Carolina. Legislators need to apply the brakes to NCGAP.
1 http://www.northcarolina.edu/apps/bog/index.php?mode=browse_premeeting&mid=5630&code=bog, Committee on Educational Planning, Policies and Programs, Special Session – Report on NCGAP, p. 8.
2 http://www.ncleg.net/Sessions/2015/Bills/House/PDF/H97v9.pdf, Section 11.7.
3Report on NCGAP, pp. 16-17, 29.
5Ibid, p. 21.
6Ibid, p. 23.
7Ibid, p. 7.
8Ibid, p. 28.
10Scott Shook, State Board of Community Colleges memo, “Re: N.C. Guaranteed Admission Program (NCGAP) Report,” March 18, 2016.