Equalizing Outcomes Through Program Proliferation

At the January Board of Governors meeting, the UNC system seemed to be in conflict with itself.

On the one hand, UNC president Erskine Bowles acknowledged that the system is not serving middle-class students well when it comes to providing access. He said that the system’s demographics are changing, with more students coming from the top of the income ladder and more from the bottom, while those in the middle are getting “squeezed.”

Yet some of the proposals raised during the meeting are likely to put more of a burden on those very students, in order to further ease the burden on low-income students. For example, 25 percent of all tuition increases will be dedicated to expanding special programs to increase retention and graduation rates, primarily for students with weak academic backgrounds.

The focus on such special programs gives out mixed signals about how to deal with the problem of low graduation rates. For, at the same time plans are being formulated to expand these programs for students who are unprepared to begin college, university officials are also considering addressing the same problem by an opposing tactic—limiting enrollment and thus allowing only relatively prepared students to enter.

The second approach to improving graduation rates encourages academically weaker students to start at the community college level rather than at the four-year universities. This measure is particularly important now, because of the economic downturn. The cost of educating a student at a university is usually between two or three times the cost at a community college. With six-year graduation rates for students who start their college careers at the universities hovering below 60 percent, many students drop out without markedly improving their skill level. This is not only a drag on the state’s economy, but there is little benefit to the dropouts as well.

The first approach—special programs that feature intensive training and mentoring—increase education costs considerably but only address the needs of a small group of students. At a time when the university system is scraping for every dollar, expenditures on these programs will force belt-tightening in other areas. The universities are already holding off on spending five percent of their state appropriations for this fiscal year because of anticipated shortfalls in state tax revenues, and there have been reports that this year’s revenues are going to be even lower than anticipated.

One such special program discussed at the BOG meeting was Fayetteville State University’s CHEER program: Creating Higher Expectations for Educational Readiness. It takes a “boot camp” approach to preparing students whose academic qualifications are weaker than the rest of the incoming freshmen. These students are accepted on a conditional basis only—they must complete the six-week summer CHEER program to attend FSU for the fall semester. The program focuses not only on remedial English and mathematics, but on social skills as well. There is also a supervisory/guidance  component that continues as long as the students attend Fayetteville State (FSU), according to provost Jon Young. In a telephone conversation, he said that the school added a faculty position to primarily serve as the program’s coordinator.

Young also said that the current CHEER program is based on an earlier program of the same name that started in 2002 and ran until 2008. It was funded by FSU, and it was voluntary for all students who were enrolled as freshmen.

The new program received $575,000 from the UNC system in 2008, but only spent $477, 000 that year. FSU continues to pay a small portion of the program’s cost, according to Young, although he did not provide specific dollar amounts. However, the UNC system funding alone added roughly $4,300 in cost per student for the 111 students who started the program in 2008. This is a hefty price tag, considering that the expenditures per full-time student at FSU for the 2007 school year were already $16,699, according to a Pope Center report.

According to a report on the first year of the UNC program (2008), students who attend the CHEER camp exceeded the retention rates for the rest of the freshman class (“retention” refers to the number of freshmen who return as sophomores). This higher rate of return to college occurred even though the students in the bridge program had average SAT scores of only 748 (combined math and reading), well below the 846 average for the rest of the Fayetteville freshman class that year.

But the evidence presented to prove the program’s utility needs to be more complete. The claim that the 2008 CHEER students outperform regular freshman needs some clarification. It is true that the CHEER students got higher grades on average in the program’s two summer courses (English 108—Grammar and Usage—and Math 121—Introduction to College Algebra). These are remedial classes: most college-track high school students complete algebra in either the tenth or eleventh grades, and English 108 prepares students to take English 110, a standard freshman composition course.

With very intensive teaching, tutoring, supervision, and encouragement, the CHEER students were able to get slightly higher grades in these remedial subjects than other freshmen who also needed remediation, but who took the courses on their own without all the extra advantages.

But that does not mean that they compare well with FSU students who are in fact ready for college as freshmen and need no remediation. Time will tell, but FSU’s graduation rates do not show any benefit from the earlier, voluntary CHEER program. That program began in 2002, with only 9 students, and grew considerably each year.

The four-year graduation rates for the class beginning in 2001, the year before the program started, was 15.7 percent, while the six-year rate for that entering class was 35.6 percent. The rates for the entering class of 2002 rose to 18.4 percent and 38 percent, but 9 students would have no or little effect on these statistics. And in the three following years, the four-year graduation rates dropped dramatically, to 12.7 percent, to 11.4 percent, and 9.3 percent. The six-year rate for the students who entered in 2003 and finished by 2009 slid all the way to 31.5 percent, the worst in the UNC system.

Another problem is that CHEER requires that highly-paid, university-system tenure-track Ph.D. professors teach at the high school remedial level, when community college teachers with lesser degrees are perhaps more suited for the task—and far less costly to taxpayers.

Perhaps some sort of scaled-down “boot camp” approach would make more sense if implemented at the appropriate level—the community colleges. The universities are not the place to re-teach high school subjects and to teach basic social skills. They exist to impart higher knowledge to serious students, and to create new knowledge through research.

Plans are afoot to expand CHEER to UNC-Pembroke and Elizabeth City State College this year. And CHEER is far from the only such program in the state. There is some sort of “summer bridge” program, such as CHEER, at other schools in the system, including Western Carolina University’s Academic Success Program.  To quote from UNC senior vice president for academic affairs Alan Mabe’s presentation to the January Board of Governors meeting, there is a “very large array of programs in place.” He lists 16 different types of programs, including “summer bridge programs,” “service learning,” and “social and cultural support.”

Such programs are in conflict with what should be recognized as the true needs of the system— lowering costs while improving graduation rates, if possible, and not making severe cuts in necessary academic programs. Yet such programs seem to grow exponentially at universities, and they can be difficult to kill when they prove to be inefficient or to outlive their usefulness.

In difficult economic times, it is folly to expand any programs that place a greater burden on the middle class unless they specifically address the most basic needs of the poor—food, clothing, shelter, etc. These bridge programs do not qualify as “basic needs, ” but the higher taxes and tuition needed to pay for them does qualify as a burden on the middle class. The path to prosperity is best followed by easing the burden on those who shoulder the load—the taxpayers—and by devoting resources to those who are most likely to improve the economy—the most talented students.

Expanding expensive “handholding” programs for students of uncertain academic ability is questionable during the best of times, no matter how politically expedient it might be. During the current economic climate it is a major mistake. There is a place in North Carolina’s higher education system for everybody who wishes to attend, and the most efficient place for remedial students is at community colleges. Bowles and others in the UNC system have recognized this—there are discussions scheduled about limiting enrollment growth by tying it to graduation rates. They should not let the pressure for special programs by special interests sidetrack their  efforts to create a more effective and equitable system by having both the universities and community colleges perform their proper roles.