Margaree Brown grew up in Everetts, North Carolina. Her high school had fewer than 400 students. Her graduating class was a group of just 40.

Now a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Brown is a first-generation college student and one of only five people from her high school class still in college.

“I was like, ‘I need to go to college, I need a degree, and I need to get out of Martin County,’” Brown told a group of college administrators, lawmakers, and other public officials Friday, April 5, during a roundtable discussion about student success and graduation rates.

“I love home, but there wasn’t much there for me,” she said. “I wanted to provide for my family. I wanted to be that success story for my family.”

Brown is one example of a much larger population, one of low-income and first-generation college students less likely than their more affluent peers to complete college once they’ve started. Between 2014 and 2016, 4 million undergraduates quit school before completing a degree, data from the U.S. Department of Education show. Local numbers show 905,000 North Carolinians have begun some form of higher education, only to leave before finishing their degrees, said Andrew Kelly, the University of North Carolina System’s vice president for strategy and policy.

Known as “part-way home students,” their growing numbers are a problem. Lawmakers and education officials are taking notice.

On Friday, North Carolina legislators and public higher education officials gathered at UNC Greensboro to discuss “Unlikely,” a documentary film about America’s college dropout crisis. The production, created by filmmakers Jaye and Adam Fenderson, takes a close look at “part-way home” students, who have some college experience but who dropped out because of financial, social, or other barriers.

Brown was one of three student panelists to join Adam Fenderson and UNC Greensboro Provost Dana Dunn in a discussion about how the university is promoting student success. Seniors Nicholas Smurthwaite and McKayla Bohannon, also first-generation college-goers from small towns, spoke alongside Brown.

All three have drawn loans, worked jobs, and supported their families throughout school.

All three are determined to graduate, despite the challenges and expense.

This is a critical — and concerning — case study of what’s happening all over the United States, Fenderson said.  

“We are blown away by the issues that are institutional that are not helping these students,” he said.

Education is still mostly treated as a one-size-fits-all system, but it shouldn’t work that way, Fenderson said. “Unlikely” emphasized nontraditional online schools, mentoring and advising for students, and tailored learning for adult students with responsibilities such as jobs and families.

Public schools like UNC Greensboro can be a tremendous resource to students facing such challenges, Dunn said. The majority of the school’s population is made up of first-generation, minority, and black students. That makes the school one of the most diverse in the UNC system, and officials are focused on student support, Dunn said.

“I like to say we’re a gateway of social mobility for our students,” she said. “Saving students really isn’t rocket science. It [takes] a culture of care.”

The university gathers data on students who have “stopped-out.” Then it works hard to get them back to class and on the right path to a degree. UNC Greensboro’s alumni association offers “micro-grants” to students with emergency financial needs. Additionally, the school will soon launch an Academic Success Coaching Program for first-year students, with graduate student counselors who act as case managers for 150 students who need help adjusting to college academics.

The program, funded from a $1.2 million Armfield Foundation grant, is set to launch this fall.

“We are doing things to support our students, to get them a college degree and career, to transform their lives and transform the region,” said Chancellor Franklin Gilliam.

UNC Greensboro’s graduation rate is 55 percent, the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard says.

In 2018, UNC Greensboro awarded 4,307 degrees to students, its highest number in 10 years, UNC system data show. The school’s total enrollment in 2018 was 20,106, up slightly from 2017, and the highest since 2009.  

UNC Greensboro administrators are right to celebrate successes, but officials should always remember to ask students where they can improve, Fenderson said.

“The big question I love thinking about is, ‘What do we need to stop doing?’” Fenderson said. “I’m sure there are things in your school that you can stop doing. I urge you to pat yourselves on the back … but also keep moving in that direction, and say, ‘What can we do more of, and what can stop doing?’”