NC Middle Class Subsidy Expands

, Jane Shaw, Leave a comment

One of the most puzzling education programs I have come across is “Learn and Earn,” which the North Carolina legislature recently expanded with $6.2 million for the next two fiscal years.

Learn and Earn, initiated by the governor in 2004, is an “early college” program composed of small high schools located mostly on community college campuses. Students can progress through high school and then get an associate’s degree — in only five years of school. Since all of it is free to the student, the successful graduate obtains the equivalent of two years of college virtually without charge.

This program was supposed to reduce the high school dropout rate, as these statements indicate:

• “Gov. Mike Easley today announced a new program designed to provide incentive for high school students to remain in school, earn an associate’s degree and prepare them for high skill jobs in new and emerging industries.” (Press release from the governor’s office, Sept. 8, 2004.)

• The “measurable outcomes” of Learn and Earn will include a decrease in “dropouts, suspensions, retention, achievement gaps, violence.” (PowerPoint presentation by the Department of Public Instruction, Sept. 8, 2004.)

• “The primary goal of Learn and Earn is to increase preparedness for work and college, graduation rates and the number of high school graduates and to decrease dropouts, suspensions, achievement gaps and violence.”(News release from the community college system, February 17, 2005).

Frankly, this doesn’t make much sense. The idea that you can get kids who don’t like school to stay in for an extra year, do more demanding work, and thus not drop out seems illogical. Potential dropouts – by definition – don’t value the first degree (the high school diploma) very highly. Why would they be willing to work hard for a second one?

Then I read an August 5, 2007, article in the Charlotte Observer about the Learn and Earn school at South Piedmont Community College. The reporter wrote: “The classes are honors level, and the course load is heavy, said Principal Victoria McGovern.”

This heavily academic workload is going to prevent dropouts? < p>

Well, it turns out that Learn and Earn isn’t a program to reduce the high school dropout rate, after all – at least not now. Joseph Garcia, vice president of the North Carolina New Schools project, which operates the program with the state DPI, told me explicitly that Learn and Earn is “not a dropout prevention program,” although reducing dropouts might be “among measurable outcomes.” He was “not familiar with him [the governor] ever calling it a dropout prevention effort.” Garcia has been with the program about a year.

So what is it? A subsidy for the middle class. Located on college campuses, backed by special funding, and free of charge, these schools will attract normal kids who have no intention of dropping out, plus some extra-smart kids who want college credit – and a few mavericks. Perhaps the most important people attracted to these schools are middle class parents; they are probably pretty savvy, and they vote. For a politician, these parents are a dream constituency.

To be sure, the concept of a small school-within-a-school on a campus with advanced offerings has merit for a wide variety of students, and I understand that the early colleges are striving to find kids from unconventional backgrounds who might be turned on by the challenges.

By and large, however, what sold the program to the public in 2004 – alarm over the fact that roughly 30 percent of North Carolina ninth graders never graduate from high school — did not have the same selling power once the program was in play. Some other driver was needed. And the governor found one – middle-class students.

Indeed, the governor has pretty much said that. This past July, he wrote that the program “began by aiming at students from families where no one had ever attended college. But success and interest has been so high that Learn and Earn is now open to all students.”

So what’s the problem? There is nothing wrong with high school students taking college courses. And where high schools are unable to provide the quality of education that some students need, sending high schoolers to community colleges at no additional charge may have merit. But surely this should be an exception.

The state government already subsidizes education heavily. Thanks to taxpayers, K-12 education is free and community college tuition is quite modest. Even the state’s 16 four-year campuses charge tuition that is low by national standards. And now we need another subsidy? Students – in many cases precocious students from well-off families – can attend college at taxpayer expense, getting the equivalent of two years’ credit without paying any tuition at all.

This education may be free to the student, but it is costly to the taxpayers. Some of those taxpayers earn less than some families receiving the benefit. In my mind, the remaining puzzle is: How is that fair?

Jane S. Shaw is the executive vice president of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh, for whom this article was originally written. Alyn Berry provided research assistance while serving an internship with the John Locke Foundation.