Raleigh, N.C. — High school graduates with a GPA of 3.5 or higher would qualify for free in-state community college tuition under a bill that cleared the House Education Committee on Community Colleges on Tuesday.
"This would help with the long-term cost of their education," Rep. Jeffrey Ellmore, R-Wilkes, told the committee.
Under House Bill 129, students would have to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to qualify for the tuition grant. Any other state or federal scholarship award would be deducted from the amount of the new scholarship. As currently drafted, it would go into effect for the 2016-17 school year.
Encouraging high-achieving students to take their first two years of classes at community colleges would save the state money, Ellmore said. The state share of a community college student's cost is $4,401 per year on average, as compared with the average state subsidy in the University of North Carolina system, which is $13,419, according to figures from the legislature's nonpartisan fiscal staff.
In many respects, the bill is similar to a proposal made by President Barack Obama in his recent State of the Union address.
The bill would also require UNC system schools to offer students deferred admission if they earn one of these new scholarships and choose to take two years of classes in community college before transferring.
The bill sets aside $2 million to run the program and provide scholarships. Ellmore said that would be enough for roughly 2,000 students. It would be administered by the same educational assistance authority that doles out lottery-funded scholarships.
While students would have to have a 3.5 GPA to land the scholarship, they would need to maintain only a 3.0 GPA in community college classes to keep it all four semesters.
"What's the rationale for those apparently decreasing standards?" asked Rep. John Szoka, R-Cumberland.
Ellmore said that one issue the bill was trying to address was students who might have difficulty making the transition to higher education due to stressful family or financial situations.
Rep. Sarah Stevens, R-Surry, was one of at least two members who audibly voted against the measure on a voice vote, saying she would like to see tighter academic standards.
The bill must clear two more committees before making it to the House floor.