Why Many College Dropouts Are Returning to School in North Carolina

Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

The college-affordability crisis can at times feel like a problem with a million responses but no clear solution. Students often graduate with thousands of dollars in debt, or, even worse, they drop out of college and are still left with debt to pay off.

As the student-debt bubble continues to grow—it is now estimated at more than $1.5 trillion—policy makers are poking around for that solution. One that has been proffered is “free college,” whether that’s tuition- or debt-free. But an alternate solution has taken hold in North Carolina, and perhaps it’s the simplest of all: Just lower tuition. And it’s getting students who have dropped out back into the classroom.

This fall, the state launched a program called NC Promise that sets tuition at a flat rate—$500 a semester for in-state students, and $2,500 a semester for out-of-state students—at three public universities in geographically disparate parts of North Carolina. To fund the program, the state legislature has set aside $51 million. And its goal is self-evident: Make college affordable enough to boost the number of students who enroll, while ensuring that they aren’t saddled with debt that could affect whether or not they graduate. And, for all intents and purposes, it’s working. The three institutions—UNC Pembroke, Western Carolina University, and Elizabeth City State University—have seen immediate enrollment jumps of 14, 6, and 19 percent, respectively.

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But perhaps more interesting than the enrollment jumps themselves is how the promise program has affected so-called “readmits”—students who drop out of college and then reenroll. Pembroke, in particular, has seen a 60 percent increase in its readmit population so far this fall. “We certainly anticipated an increase,” David Ward, the provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at Pembroke, told me, “but I’m not going to say that we foresaw the size of increase that we did.” Overall, the institution had an 838-student increase—including readmits, transfers, and new enrollees—from the last school year.

To put the NC Promise program into perspective, the estimated cost of attendance for a commuter student at UNC Pembroke last year was $8,495. But this year, the cost dropped to $5,893, an amount that, for low-income students, can be covered in full by Pell Grants. Of course, students still have to pay for basics like housing and food on their own. But, Ward told me, the reenrollment rates are encouraging, and they signal that lowering tuition is having its intended effect. “The reality is that many of our students are one car breaking down, one [broken] transmission away from not being able to complete a semester,” he said. “Lowering the cost directly to the student is a great incentive.”

In fact, so many students are enrolling at Pembroke that administrators are concerned about capacity. So the college has started a program called “BraveSteps” that creates a pathway to the institution, allowing students to attend a local community college for a year before transferring to the university.

But the problem of capacity gets at a larger point: The three institutions, though they have missions to serve historically underserved populations—ECSU is a historically black college and Pembroke is a minority-serving institution—only enroll a tiny fraction of the total number of college students in North Carolina. That means that if and how the NC Promise program is scaled is important, and right now, there’s no clear answer.

“This isn’t a solution at the scale that the state would see big increases in the proportion of people attending higher education,” William Doyle, a professor of higher education at Vanderbilt University, told me. It’s a valiant start, he says, but equally important is making sure that college is affordable for students where they live. That’s because nearly 60 percent of incoming freshmen at four-year public colleges attend schools within 50 miles of their permanent residence. For this solution to have a broad effect on college-going culture, it will need to be available at more schools.

Luckily for North Carolina, it may not be so heavy a lift. “North Carolina as a state has some of the lowest net prices for students attending [research] institutions of any state,” Doyle told me, particularly for low-income students at UNC Chapel Hill, the state’s flagship university. Perhaps, as opposed to thinking about how to scale up the NC Promise program, the state should be thinking about how to scale up some of the initiatives already at work at its best-known public university.

For now, however, Pembroke is focused on helping the new students it has enrolled and those who have made their way back to campus. The retention rate at the institution is up 5 percent, and Ward told me that they’re on their way toward the ultimate goal. “Perhaps somewhere in the future we’ll see the number of readmits go down,” he says, “because they don’t leave us.”