In an effort to reduce education costs and expand opportunities for students, North Carolina has introduced Learn and Earn, a program allowing students to earn a high school diploma and an associate of arts degree in five years.
Learn and Earn is unique because it allows students to jumpstart their college educations or gain high-level career skills without the burden of tuition fees. Currently, 41 high schools statewide are using Learn and Earn, a number that will swell to 70 by this autumn.
Most states’ early-entrance models for college are open only to gifted students who have outgrown their regular high schools, but North Carolina’s program is aimed at a broad spectrum of able students–even those who might be the first in their family to graduate from high school and don’t see college in their future.
Qualified students in participating public high schools can take a variety of on-campus and online college-credit courses at no cost. Students can earn both high school and college credit for completed courses.
Access to the courses is provided during the regular school day, and an online facilitator assists students in the classroom. The state’s charter schools are eligible to participate in the program.
Learn and Earn enjoys a special advantage that may make it attractive to other states. The education bureaucracy and teacher unions historically resist any meaningful education choice. However, Learn and Earn can be incorporated easily into the existing bureaucracy with minimal threat and disruption.
Also, there is little in the program that teacher unions can object to with a clear conscience. Whereas the unions claim–wrongly–that vouchers rob public schools of needed funds and encourage the best students to leave, Learn and Earn does not involve transferring public funds to parents, and it keeps students within the public school and public community college framework.
Those facts are no guarantee, of course, that teacher unions in highly unionized states will not find some way to claim such a program violates their “rights” to taxpayers’ money.
Learn and Earn’s success is critical to North Carolina’s economic welfare. Over the past 10 years, virtually every county statewide has felt the impact of global competition. In the past, the state’s economy was based on a three-legged stool of textiles, furniture production, and agriculture. The textile and furniture industries are practically gone now, and the remaining market cannot accommodate no-skill or low-skill jobs.
The state has decided only a highly skilled workforce, especially in industries where innovation and creativity are involved, can improve its plight. Learn and Earn is designed to help fill this need.
North Carolina is already attracting some of those industries, with biotechnology in Research Triangle Park near Raleigh and banking and information-technology centers in other parts of the state. The hope is that Learn and Earn graduates will stay in North Carolina and fill positions in these expanding industries.
For students, part of the program’s appeal is that they are treated like adults, and in their college courses they get to mix with students of all ages–especially when taking classes on community college campuses.
As the director of a large adult education program and a teacher at the community-college level, I have observed this benefit firsthand since Learn and Earn was first established at the beginning of this school year.
In January 2007, Lewis M. Andrews, executive director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy in Connecticut, published a paper, “Free College for High School Students,” proposing a program similar to North Carolina’s. The main difference is that his program would offer free tuition to any state community college for students who graduate from high school in three years.
According to Andrews, there are many advantages to such programs: They improve the overall quality of public education; they reduce state and local taxes; they lower the need for costly school construction; able students are more engaged with their education and less bored; and the programs make college more affordable and accessible.
For many, the local community college is the best higher education bargain available. It is conveniently accessible, and although it is inexpensive, it offers high-quality courses.
But there is another advantage of community colleges, and high school students are usually unaware of it. As a college counselor years ago, I learned that many four-year colleges might reject a high school graduate, only to accept him or her after two years of community college coursework.
Four-year colleges do this for two basic reasons: To satisfy themselves that the student has proven his or her worth, and because the dropout rate is so high among most four-year colleges that they welcome graduates from community colleges to help bolster their dwindling customer base at the junior- and senior-class levels.
Richard G. Neal ([email protected]) writes from North Carolina.
For more information …
North Carolina Learn and Earn. http://www.ncpublicschools.org/learnandearnonline
“Free College for High School Students,” by Lewis Andrews, Yankee Institute for Public Policy, January 2007: http://www.heartland.org/article.cfm?artId=20767