The University of North Carolina system might soon have to make its least-qualified admitted students earn a community-college degree before permitting them to enroll. The idea is backed by Republican state lawmakers, who have argued that it would increase the system’s graduation rates, cut student debt, and give students a better chance of receiving some kind of postsecondary credential.But the university isn’t keen on the plan. Last week the research staffs of the UNC system and the North Carolina Community College system presented a report to the UNC Board of Governors that breaks down how a deferred-enrollment plan might work and analyzes its potential outcomes.
The report explores two approaches. One would raise the systemwide minimum grade-point average for admission from 2.5 to 2.7; it would then route students within that window to community colleges first. The other approach would defer the bottom 2.5 percent of admitted students on each campus, based on their high-school GPAs.
Would more students earn bachelor’s degrees under either approach? Probably not, the researchers said. What about alleviating student debt? Both options might help, they acknowledged, but not much. More important, they argued, deferrals would reduce access to four-year universities for poor, nonwhite students.
Lawmakers want the university system to put a deferred-enrollment program in place by the time students apply for fall-2017 admission on a North Carolina campus, but the analysis suggests delaying it. Most board members agree, as does the university system’s new president, Margaret Spellings.
The UNC board voted last week to approve the report and its recommendation for a delay; the community-college system’s board will now consider the report before sending it to lawmakers. But since the program is already written into state law, UNC officials will have to advocate for such a change when the legislature returns to work, in April.
At least one lawmaker, however, questions pushing the timeline back. “Delay tactics are the standard procedure when you don’t want to do something,” said State Rep. D. Craig Horn, a Republican who supports the deferral program. “This is not about the institutions. It’s about helping students.”
As for the predicted consequences for minority students, Mr. Horn said, “I don’t buy that that’s right.” In his view, the program would help those students “achieve their desired result.”
The Chronicle talked to experts on higher-education access and attainment about the deferred-admission program and some of the report’s findings. Here are their thoughts on four areas of concern cited in the report.
Such a program would have a disproportionate impact on low-income and minority students.
In the fall of 2014, nearly 500 in-state students with high-school GPAs from 2.5 to 2.7 were admitted to North Carolina’s public universities. Among those students, 83 percent were nonwhite and 71 percent came from low-income families.
“Clearly the net effect will be a huge, stratified talent loss among the low-income and minority populations in the state,” said Anthony Lising Antonio, an associate professor of education at Stanford University.
“Basically this data says that if we choose to go with this, in essence we’re going to eradicate diversity as we now know it,” said James Anderson, chancellor of Fayetteville State University, a historically black institution, at last week’s board meeting. (The Chronicle obtained an audio recording of the meeting.)
Moreover, the report says, the program could cause enrollment declines at minority-serving institutions at a time when they’re already under duress. Eighty-six percent of those 500 in-state students attended one of the six such campuses in the system. Applying a GPA cutoff would cause double-digit drops in freshman enrollment at most of the colleges, according to the analysis, “and could have detrimental effects on the economic viability of some of these institutions.”
But Representative Horn said the plan would hurt those colleges “only if you take it in isolation.” In addition to the deferral program, he wants to put in place other policies that would bolster student success on the minority-serving campuses. “We in North Carolina have got to be really creative,” he said.
Many would-be undergraduates might decline a community-college offer in favor of another four-year institution.
“Saying you can come, but you first must go to community college — it’s a bait and switch,” said Iris Palmer, a senior policy analyst at New America, a Washington think tank.
In addition, some analysts said, the abundance of college options, both in the UNC system and elsewhere, would make the deferral program a tough sell for many students — even if they could save money by starting off at a community college.
Say the system used the approach of deferring the bottom 2.5 percent of each admitted class. If the Greensboro campus deferred a student to community college, that student could probably gain acceptance to one of the system’s less-competitive campuses. The analysis found that nearly 90 percent of students in the bottom 2.5 percent of each admitted class in the fall of 2014 “would be admissible to at least one other UNC institution.”
“You would probably get a shuffling of students across the system,” Ms. Palmer said. That could exacerbate completion problems by causing the weakest students to cluster at the colleges that already have the lowest graduation rates and fewest resources, she said.
Mr. Horn doesn’t buy the low participation rates predicted in the analysis. He believes many students would perk up at the potential savings offered by attending a two-year college if system officials properly communicated the program’s benefits. For instance, he said, a UNC admissions officer might tell a deferred student: “I want you to succeed. This is the right school for you, but it may not be at the moment, so let me help you.”
But would-be college students may not need such hand-holding. Most college applicants, Ms. Palmer said, already know that two-year institutions are a cheaper option. “If that was going to influence their decision,” she asked, “wouldn’t they just go to a community college?”
Sending more students to community college might mean savings for the students and the state in the short term — but not necessarily in the long run.
The state would save about $3.5 million a year if 500 would-be students went to community college first. The students’ savings wouldn’t be as significant because tuition in the system is relatively low already. System officials estimate that the average student in the deferral program would save $1,750 in tuition and take out $4,600 less in loans.
That’s not enough money to affect most students’ college choices, Ms. Palmer said. Also, university officials say the savings might not last long: Transfer students tend to take longer to earn bachelor’s degrees than those who start and finish at the same four-year college, so students could face additional tuition costs, as well as lost wages from a delayed entry into the work force.
If the state were to save some money on per-student subsidies by sending more students to the cheaper community colleges, it would need to reinvest those funds — and then some — in academic counseling and other support for the program’s participants, said Raymond C. Scheppach, a professor of public policy at the University of Virginia.
Deferring weaker students to community colleges might not raise the system’s graduation rate.
The system’s analysts looked at North Carolina students with high-school GPAs from 2.5 to 2.7 who either enrolled in a UNC institution in 2009 or enrolled in a community college that year and later transferred into the system. The graduation rate for those who transferred was 11 percent. It was 36 percent for those who started at a system campus.
Lawmakers have pointed out that all of the historically minority-serving campuses have six-year graduation rates below 50 percent and that, on the whole, community-college transfer students are more successful across the system. Critics of that view say that, while many minority institutions have poor graduation rates, rates at community colleges are even worse.
Most two-year colleges in North Carolina have graduation rates below 25 percent, according to the report. That’s partly because the colleges are open access, Ms. Palmer said, a trait that presents an added challenge: Research suggests that students surrounded by peers with a high risk of dropping out are themselves more likely not to complete their degrees.
It would make more sense, she said, for lawmakers to invest in student success at the four-year colleges instead of rerouting students on the margins.
Mr. Anderson, of Fayetteville State, expressed similar concerns at last week’s board meeting. Instead of learning in a university classroom, deferred North Carolina students would be “in a class at a community college where some students are equal to them and some will be reading at the fifth-grade level,” he said. “Why would we do that to our students?”
Sarah Brown writes about a range of higher-education topics, including sexual assault, race on campus, and Greek life. Follow her on Twitter @Brown_e_Points, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.