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Cooper: Students need help making Finish Line

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Gov. Roy Cooper discusses the state's new Finish Line grant program during his visit at College of The Albemarle's campus in Elizabeth City, Friday morning. The Front Line grants are designed to ensure community college students aren't thrown off track from graduating or pursuing a career when emergency expenses arise.

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By Jon Hawley
The Daily Advance

Saturday, July 21, 2018

ELIZABETH CITY — Gov. Roy Cooper said the state’s new Finish Line grants will help ensure community college students are not thrown off track from graduating or pursuing a career when emergency expenses arise.

“A car repair should not determine your future,” Cooper said of the program during a visit to the College of The Albemarle campus in Elizabeth City on Friday. Cooper followed his visit to COA with a tour of Regulator Marine and lunch at the Downtown Soda Shoppe in Edenton.

Cooper explained that under the Finish Line program, the state will tap up to $7 million in federal funds, but the actual funding decisions will be made locally by community colleges and workforce development boards. Students may may qualify for grants of up to $1,000, which will be paid directly to the business handling their emergency need, such as car repairs or child care expenses.

Only community college students who are in good academic standing, at least 75 percent of the way toward completing their degree or credential, and meet income thresholds will qualify, he said.

Cooper and COA officials both said Friday that unexpected expenses all too often derail someone's plan for higher education — and their path to a better life. That's a problem for students across the state, Cooper noted.

“A counselor at Pamlico Community College just the other day told me that a number of her students were one flat tire away from dropping out,” Cooper said.

That dynamic has led faculty and staff at many community colleges and universities to create local equivalents of the Finish Line program, he said.

COA has done something similar. According to President Robert Wynegar, COA has a “Gap Funding” program through the COA Foundation. Even with North Carolina having low tuition relative to other states, Wynegar said, many COA students struggle to afford their schooling and unexpected but common expenses. Wynegar said COA will be ready to disburse Finish Line grants, if students need them, for the 2018-19 school year.

Cooper also noted the Finish Line program is not available to university students, though he has proposed making it available to them as well. In his recommended budget this year, he asked the General Assembly for $20 million for the program, but lawmakers did not fund it.

Cooper said the program is worthy of funding because it ultimately helps the state’s economy. North Carolina needs a workforce that can get educated — and re-educated, when needed — to keep pace with a rapidly changing economy, he said.

Asked why lawmakers did not support the program, Cooper said in a short interview that “overall, we saw a lack of support for public education by this legislature.” He faulted the Republican-controlled General Assembly for inadequate funding for not only the Finish Line grants, but for early childhood programs, teacher salaries, and overall funding for community colleges and universities.

Asked how he might address lawmakers' concerns, if any, over the Finish Line program, Cooper said his hope was to work with a “different legislature” next year, alluding to Democrats' efforts to win enough seats to end Republican super-majorities in the House and Senate.

In a phone interview Friday afternoon, state House Education Chairman Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke, said low graduation/completion rates are a serious and longstanding concern for him. However, the reason the Finish Line grants were not funded this year, he said, is that lawmakers sought to avoid implementing new programs during the Legislature’s short session. Finish Line and other initiatives to improve completion rates need to be fully considered in the long session next year, he said.

Blackwell also said the state needs to study the best ways to improve completion/graduation rates. Though not ruling out support for a Finish Line program, he said North Carolina needs to eliminate education spending that’s considered wasteful and ensure students obtain degrees and credentials that lead to good careers. Simply giving people $1,000 grants may not do that, he said.

The Finish Line program focuses on students' non-educational expenses, but students could more likely afford those expenses if higher education itself was cheaper. Asked how higher education can be made more affordable, Cooper noted his support for free community college and more state investment in higher education, including four-year universities.

“I think you've already seen efforts for more scholarships for students, but we know that the state has to invest in our public universities to continue making our university system one of the best in the country, and you're seeing the percentage of state support continue to go down,” Cooper said, reiterating he believes the state needs a General Assembly that better prioritizes education.

Asked about cost containment — how to control costs of higher education whether paid by the state or students — Cooper said “we need to work with our institutions” to supervise spending, and further encourage private investment in higher education, such as through scholarships.

Cooper also commented briefly on the proposed amendments to the state constitution that Republican lawmakers sent to voters this fall. Among the six amendments are changes to rights of crime victims, defining the right to hunt and fish, lowering the cap on state income taxes, requiring photo identification to vote, and giving the General Assembly more control over appointments to the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement and to judicial vacancies.

Cooper said he opposed all of six as either unnecessary or harmful to the state, arguing some would limit the ability to raise revenue for education, make it harder for people to vote, and give too much power to the General Assembly.

“'Just say no' is probably a good answer,” he said.