How North Carolina is helping community college students cross the finish line

Author: Molly Osborne | Originally published on

New Mexico made headlines this week when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced a plan for free tuition to all state colleges and universities for all residents regardless of income. The Times’ reporters who broke the story hailed it as “one of the boldest state-led efforts to expand access to higher education,” and they are not wrong. Other states that offer free tuition, like Tennessee, either limit it to two-year colleges or have income caps. New Mexico’s plan does neither.

Critics, however, are quick to point out that the cost of college goes far beyond tuition. Things like transportation, books, and child care add up quickly, making college unaffordable for many. The Times article looks at Indiana’s 21st Century Scholarship Program as an example of a plan that covers tuition for low-income students while allowing them to use Pell Grants for those other non-tuition expenses.

North Carolina does not have a free college plan in any form, but it is taking steps to help students with unexpected expenses that get in the way of their education. The Finish Line Grants program, created by Gov. Roy Cooper in 2018, is a federally-funded grant that provides emergency financial assistance to community college students who are at least halfway done with their studies. Students with a GPA of at least 2.0 can apply for up to $1,000 a semester. Funding is distributed to community colleges that apply jointly with their workforce development boards, and the two work together to set up the processes for students to apply and receive the funding. As of July 2019, more than $1.1 million had been awarded in the form of 1,700 Finish Line Grants.

This week, community college staff from 53 of the 58 colleges and members of local workforce development boards gathered in Greensboro to share lessons learned in implementing the program over the past year at the first Finish Line Grants Symposium. The event, hosted by the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research out of NC State’s College of Education, allowed colleges and workforce boards to share what’s worked and what hasn’t in the past year. As Jimmy Clarke, director of Lumina Strategy Labs, shared: only two other states, Minnesota and Wisconsin, have statewide postsecondary emergency aid programs, so North Carolina has few models to look to for best practices.

The symposium highlighted the challenging nature of implementing public policies for the first time. Colleges and workforce boards shared the setbacks and challenges they have dealt with in trying to create processes that serve the purpose of the grants — to give students emergency aid. Gov. Cooper’s goal was for the funds to get to students within 72 hours of their application, but the program leaves it up to the colleges and workforce boards to determine the best process to do so.

Some colleges have gas and food cards they give to students instead of trying to pay students’ gas and grocery bills. Others set up a credit card that they use to pay vendors, but that means the college’s representative may have to leave her office and go to a car repair shop to pay a bill, as someone from Durham Tech shared.

Because the program is set up so colleges pay the vendors, not the students, colleges have to collect W-9 forms from every vendor they pay. A few people shared the difficulty of tracking down vendors to get them to fill out W-9’s, especially when the vendor has never heard of the program.

Another issue that came up was the fact that many students attend community college in one county but live in another. The program requires the college and local workforce board to jointly apply for funding, but the question came up about whether it should be the workforce board from the student’s county of enrollment or county of residence. Jennie Bowen from the Region Q Workforce Development Board shared one solution: they signed an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with the other workforce development boards in their region that allows the Region Q Board to issue grants for students based on their county of enrollment, not county of residence.

Several people shared that requiring students to travel off campus to complete their application is a significant barrier. Region Q Workforce Development Board realized they were losing 30% of students who had filled out the applications but never made it to the NC Works Career Center located five miles from the community college campus. They fixed this by hiring a Finish Line Grants Career Advisor to be on campus at least once a week, which they said is making a big difference for students who don’t have transportation.

At the end of the day, the Finish Line Grants program has opened their eyes to the financial challenges their students face, participants said. As certain students came to them again and again, staff realized that for those students living in poverty, financial emergencies happen every week. And while a one-time grant is helpful, many of their students need much more than that.

“We’re learning as a college and a workforce board that it’s not just one time that these kids and adults need help,” Andrea Core from Central Piedmont Community College shared. “They actually need help more than one time to make it to the finish line.”

“That’s been one of our ‘aha!’ moments,” Core continued, “that we need to help [our students] more than once.”

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