Free community college proposal moving through House

Posted March 24, 2015

— A bill that would provide two years of community college tuition-free to top North Carolina high school students cleared its second House committee in a week Tuesday morning but continues to face skepticism from some lawmakers.

Under House Bill 129, high school graduates with a GPA of 3.5 or higher would qualify for a tuition grant, starting in the 2016-17 school year, although other state or federal scholarships would be deducted from the total award amount.

The bill would also require University of North Carolina system schools to offer students deferred admission if they earn one of the grants and choose to take two years of classes in community college before transferring.

Lawmakers would set aside $2 million for the program in the first year and $3.5 million for the 2017-18 school year.

Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, questioned whether the funds would decrease the amount available for need-based financial aid at community colleges. Sponsor Rep. Jeff Elmore, R-Wilkes, said that question should be addressed to the House Appropriations Committee, which is the next stop for the bill before it heads to the House floor.

Elmore noted the proposal could save the state money because the state share of an average community college student's cost is $4,401 per year, or about a third of the average $13,419 state subsidy for a student in the UNC system.

"If we begin to whittle away at the people who pay tuition, if we go too far, we're going wonder who's going to be left to pay the tuition," said Rep. Mark Brody, R-Union. "In order to keep the community colleges viable, we have to have a certain amount of income, and that will end up falling on the state to make it up."

Elmore said keeping top students in the state education system will ultimately benefit North Carolina. South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee have similar programs, he said.

Rep. Bryan Holloway, R-Stokes, said some students might not be able to afford four years at a UNC school, so allowing them the option of spending two years at a community college could open higher education to more people.

"It's not about the universities. It's not about the community colleges. It's about the kids. It's about providing options for them," Holloway said.

Students would have to maintain a 3.0 GPA in community college to retain the grant.

Rep. Kelly Hastings, R-Gaston, said the proposal would move the community college system "in a different direction" than its traditional mission of serving people trying to learn a trade or get a two-year instead of a four-year degree.

"You're going to be having to figure out ways to put an electrical wiring student who doesn't care about English (class) in with other people who are actually going to have to perform at a college level so they can succeed when they transfer to a four-year university," Hastings said. "I still don't really see how that's going to mesh."

Elmore said high school classes already operate on that level, so it shouldn't be a problem at community colleges.

"With the economy like it is, the lines (between) skilled workforce and more academic are very much blurred now," he said. "We have high-performing students very interested in (career technical education) at the high school level. We have other high-performing students interested in that four-year degree path."

The House Education Committee/Universities passed the bill on a voice vote, but several no votes could be heard.


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