EDUCATION: Proponents pursue support for dual-enrollment program
Speaking to a room full of the Who's Who of Lee County leaders in business and politics Tuesday morning, a team of education advocates asked for money to fund Central Carolina Works, a program to steer local high school students toward free college classes.
Central Carolina Community College President Bud Marchant, Lee County Schools Superintendent Andy Bryan, local investor and developer Kirk Bradley and Lee County Economic Development Chairman Donnie Oldham took turns pitching the plan to place specialized counselors in every public high school in Harnett, Chatham and Lee counties.
The breakfast fundraiser held at Cafe 121 was just one event in a push to raise about $500,000 by this spring from local businesses, individuals and governing bodies from the three-county area. That money will pay for the counselors, who would help students choose college courses and plan their schedules, starting in ninth grade, to have enough room for dual-enrollment classes by their junior and senior years.
"Nobody in the country is doing this," said Bradley, who is also a past chairman of the Lee County Education Foundation. "... And if you tell this to new companies, it's going to get their attention because they know there's a higher quality of worker coming out of Lee, Harnett and Chatham."
A two-year degree at a community college typically costs thousands of dollars in tuition, but it's free for North Carolinians enrolled in a public high school. Supporters of the proposal have said the counselors will help students plan ahead to be able to take advantage of the free courses, and that with help, some students could possibly earn as many as three semesters of credit toward a two-year degree — which would make higher education far more affordable and accessible.
But before Central Carolina Works can start, it needs $750,000 — supporters are seeking $250,000 from grants and $500,000 from donations — to pay the first two years of salaries for the nine counselors who would work in local high schools. Existing school counselors already have a lot on their hands, Bryan said, in juggling students' high school academics, personal issues, emotional health and more. So to get this program off the ground and give students a strong resource to turn to for college-related assistance, they need additional help.
Bryan said his fellow superintendents agree and are on board, and so are the chambers of commerce and economic development corporations of each county — except for Harnett, which recently disbanded its EDC.
"[Students] need more opportunity to explore what's out there," Bryan said. "... Our goal is for every student to graduate with something more than a high school degree. That raises the bar not only for the individual, but the community as well."
And once this fundraising push is over, supporters said, they'll be done asking for checks. The college gets money from the state for every student enrolled, and increasing dual-enrollment participation at the school should make enough to continue paying the counselors through that money alone, Marchant said — making the program self-sustaining and potentially profitable.
Oldham said as a construction contractor, he would love to be able to hire from a better-educated workforce. And speaking in his role as local EDC chief, he said the higher salaries that typically come with higher education could very reasonably translate into a better housing market and thus pave the way for more development by retailers and manufacturers alike.
There's already some potential opportunities in the works: Rezoning for a mixed-used development recently was approved in northern Lee County, and two proposed sites in Chatham County — an industrial park near Siler City and a mixed-use area stretching from Pittsboro to Wake County — would be among the largest such developments in the state if completed.
Marchant added that studies have estimated about 70 percent of jobs in the future will require education beyond high school, even if it's not a bachelor's or advanced degree. But Julian Philpott, chairman of the CCCC board of trustees, said those who do want a four-year degree can also benefit: Students who take a year or two of classes at a community college and then transfer to a university actually outperform their peers, he said.
Oldham said the program also ought to reduce the high school dropout rate by giving "marginal students" a reason to stay in school.
"Everybody, or pretty much everybody, is good at something," he said. "And if we can keep them interested, point them in the right direction, then they're going to stay in school."
Marchant agreed and added that high school students who take dual-enrollment classes are, on average, more than twice as likely to graduate and then go on to college as students who don't. All in all, everyone comes out ahead, he said — especially students.
"We're saving them tuition; we're teaching them a skill; we're keeping them from dropping out."