In Defense of NC GAP

UNC President Margaret Spellings has said that the North Carolina legislature’s proposed Guaranteed Admissions Program (NC GAP) has identified the right problem, but has come up with the wrong solution. Her vision is of a UNC system accessible to everyone and educating everyone—not just elites.

That vision, however, should include NC GAP, which focuses on access—through the community college system—and success at many educational levels.

The program works by identifying students who satisfy UNC institutions’ official admissions criteria, but who are academically weaker than their peers. These students would be given a promise of admission to the UNC schools to which they applied—if they complete an associate degree at a North Carolina community college within three years.

According to legislation, NC GAP is designed to:

encourage and assist more students to obtain a baccalaureate degree within a shorter time period; to provide students with a college education at significantly lower costs for both the student and the State; to help decrease the amount of debt resulting from loans that a student may owe upon graduation; to provide a student with an interim degree that may increase a student’s job opportunities if the student chooses not to continue postsecondary education; and to provide easier access to academic counseling that will assist a student in selecting coursework that reflects the student’s educational and career goals and helps the student succeed academically.

NC GAP creates realistic pathways to education most suited to students’ preparation. It directs students who are academically much weaker than their peers into community colleges—where remedial education is more readily available and where courses are more tailored for students who are not quite prepared for university work.

NC GAP is an alternative path that will work for North Carolina. Studies show that transferring from community college is a successful and economical way for students to succeed. For instance, in March 2014, researchers at the American Education Research Association (AERA) published a study showing that community college transfers are as likely to earn a BA as four-year students, despite credit transfer roadblocks.

As AERA noted, “Students who begin their postsecondary education at a community college and successfully transfer to a four-year college have BA graduation rates equal to similar students who begin at four-year colleges. That rate would actually increase—to 54 percent from 46 percent—if not for the loss of academic credits when students transfer.”

Despite those findings, UNC system officials have reached different conclusions. A report recently approved by the UNC Board of Governors (available here, scroll down) predicts that NCGAP will “probably not increase the number of baccalaureate degrees obtained.” System analysts likely come to this conclusion because they do not take into account the fact that the system already laid the groundwork to reduce the very roadblocks that make transfer difficult. The Comprehensive Articulation Agreement, which UNC and the Community College system worked for years to perfect, now makes transfer much more seamless than the report’s data indicate.

Besides, the system’s report itself points out that students who participate in NC GAP might have more commitment to completing a four-year degree than those who are in its 2009 sample. It also shows that NC GAP will likely lower the cost of college education to students and the state, decrease debt from student loans, and provide a credential for students who complete an associate’s but fail to complete a BA or BS.

On net, NC GAP has far more potential benefits than costs. It would especially benefit the many students who are admitted to a UNC school, but subsequently drop out with no degree. At some UNC schools, roughly half of all students do not graduate. It would be better for these students to have an associate’s degree (and less debt) than no degree at all.

NC GAP is not a silver bullet, but it is a real step towards improving North Carolina’s many pathways to higher education.