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Official: ‘Inaccurate’ Study May Harm Transfer Program Between Community Colleges, UNC

Outgoing community college system president says students in study did not match demographics of those who would enter into transfer agreement

The Student Services Building at Durham Tech (Image courtesy Stanford-White Engineering)
The Student Services Building at Durham Tech (Image courtesy Stanford-White Engineering)

A report commissioned by the University of North Carolina and the North Carolina Community College System on the potential impact of the North Carolina Guaranteed Admission Program contains inaccurate information that should be acknowledged during legislative discussions about any changes in NCGAP, says George Fouts, interim president of the NCCCS.

Passed into law last year by the General Assembly, NCGAP is a program designed to ensure that lower-performing students can enroll at the UNC system. Under the program, students who complete the first two years of their studies at a community college would be guaranteed admission at a UNC campus.

UNC administrators and state legislators who are skeptical of NCGAP are basing their assumptions on data that has not accounted for recent education reforms that have boosted transfer success between community colleges and the UNC system, said Fouts, who on July 1 will relinquish his seat to incoming NCCCS president James Williamson.

Following NCGAP’s passage in 2015, state legislators tasked UNC and NCCCS to research the impact of the program and to determine the right path for implementation between both systems.

The resulting report, which was released earlier this year by RTI International, projected several problems with NCGAP, including lower enrollment rates at UNC’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and lower graduation rates across the system as a whole.

“NCGAP will probably not increase the number of baccalaureate degrees obtained or reduce time to completion but rather could have the opposite effect, fewer baccalaureate degrees,” the report stated. “[It will] disparately impact rural, low-income, and minority students and families and/or increase ‘brain drain.’”

Given the report’s findings, the UNC Board of Governors voted in March to recommend delaying the university’s adoption of NCGAP, with UNC President Margaret Spellings expressing concern over the effect the program might have on the university.

“The report before you clearly shows that NCGAP has unintended consequences — not to mention that it limits consumer choice and empowerment,” Spellings stated during a March 4 board meeting.

But while the report has raised questions about the difficulty of implementing NCGAP, Fouts said the research itself is flawed in several ways, citing problems with the selection of the student test group as just one of his concerns.

In an addendum written to the legislature, the community college board stated that the student test group — a 2009 cohort made up of 971 North Carolina high school graduates — was a bad match for the purpose of the research, considering a 2014 “articulation: agreement that is expected to improve transfer rates between community colleges and state universities.

That agreement guaranteed credit transfers to all 16 UNC institutions for students who completed an associates degree or who held 30 credit hours of general education coursework. It also reduced the total number of credit hours required to complete a community college degree, and added a college transfer course as a degree requirement.

“We were losing a lot of students who were coming here in 2009, and they were wasting away, or getting lost,” Fouts said. With the changes in the articulation agreement, “we know that those transfer rates are going to be more effective now.”

The cohort for the study had been selected before NCCCS could offer input into the research process, Fouts said, and while the community college board was able to suggest some changes, the process was too far along for RTI to alter the test group.

In one paragraph of the report’s data findings summary, the researchers noted the shortcomings of the NCGAP test group.

“It is important to note the limitations of this analysis,” the report states. “These outcomes are associated with students who started their postsecondary experience before many student success initiatives, both at UNC and the NCCCS, and the most recent Comprehensive Articulation Agreement (CAA) were implemented.”

“It also cannot take into account all of the socioeconomic and other factors that may have led to a student’s decision to enroll in a particular college or university,” the report continues. “Further, it is unclear whether the students [who] started at a community college in the 2009 cohort analysis had the same commitment to completing a baccalaureate degree as those who would participate in NCGAP.”

Still another misunderstanding about NCGAP, said Fouts, is a misconception that a community college education does not satisfy the standards set forth by the UNC system. This idea was voiced in March by Fayetteville State University Chancellor James Anderson, who said that he didn’t understand why UNC would want to enroll students in a community college “where open admissions mean that some of their classmates would be reading on a fifth-grade level.”

Fouts, who calls the remarks regrettable and uninformed, said that Anderson later sent NCCCS an apology to correct his statement. Still, the incident revealed a pervading “pop culture” assumption about the structure and purpose of the community college system, he added.

“Our transfer students do better than the students that transfer within the 16 [UNC] campuses,” Fouts said. “And they do better than the students who transfer in from private colleges. … It is true that we have students who read at the fifth-grade level, because in North Carolina community colleges are charged with adult base education. So we teach thousands of students every year to read. But not in our curriculum classes, much less in our transfer classes.”

While Fouts agrees that concerns about NCGAP’s impact on HBCUs are legitimate, he also points to the community college system as a main provider of education for North Carolina’s at-risk and minority students, with minority students comprising 39 percent of last year’s overall community college enrollment. Additionally, some of NCCCS’s largest universities — like Durham Technical Community College — see minority student enrollment exceeding 55 percent.

Even so, Durham Tech President Bill Ingram, who says he’s in the minority of opinion among his NCCCS colleagues, believes that NCGAP’s impact on HBCUs will be overwhelmingly negative, and should be reconsidered.

“The students who are going to be impacted are the students who are marginally admitted to the HBCUs,” Ingram said during a recent radio interview. “And I think that’s a challenge. I think a bigger challenge, and this gets back to the idea of conversation and communication is that this is a policy that is being imposed by the General Assembly. It’s not something that’s being imposed by the community college system.”

Ingram suggested collaborations between individual campuses might be more productive than a systemwide agreement. “Durham Tech has a very strong partnership with North Carolina Central University, and has a very strong program that’s very similar to NCGAP,” Ingram said. “Students who have applied to NCCU but [are] not admitted … take their classes at Durham Tech. That program has some challenges and some issues to work through, but I think that a program where partnership is built between institutions is going to be more successful than one that is imposed by the General Assembly.”

Discussions about proceeding with NCGAP’s rollout continue between the community college system, UNC, and the General Assembly, but Fouts and the community college board hope that implementation of the law soon moves forward.

“We understand that this is a more difficult issue for [UNC] than it is for us,” Fouts said. “Just think about it logistically. We do this every year. We admit students. We advise them. We provide them support services. We teach them. And we transferred [more than] 9,000 last fall. We have the capacity to do that, [and] we’re ready to go.”