NC legislators back efforts to help veterans, dropouts earn degrees

SANFORD, N.C. — College is expensive. The cost can be prohibitive for many, leading them to either put off continuing their education or take on debt that can end up being too much to handle.

A young woman from Sanford, Shanelle Roberson, worked multiple jobs in college but still came away thousands of dollars in debt. President Barack Obama used her story as an example earlier this month as he urged reforms to the student loan system. Now, some North Carolina politicians are moving ahead with their own plans to help people avoid crushing school debt.

Locally, Sen. Ronald Rabin (R-Lee/Harnett) has found success in a months-long effort to let military veterans receive college credit for the training they received while serving their country.

Senate Bill 761, which he introduced along with Sen. Welsey Meredith (R-Cumberland), passed the Senate unanimously last week, 48-0, and moved to the N.C. House of Representatives this week for consideration.

It would allow members of the military to receive civilian licenses and certifications without going through civilian classes, as long as they can prove a certain amount of training and recent experience. It would also create reciprocity with other states for military spouses, allowing them to transfer a certification to North Carolina instead of going the whole process again.

The bill leaves the specifics to be worked out by the state's public universities and community colleges, but Rabin said getting the general idea approved is a much-needed step.

"This bill is good for workforce development and enrichment while showing our military community the appreciation they richly deserve," he said in a press release. "... The end objective is to create a seamless system that gives credit for training, education and experience received while serving and encourages military members to sink their roots in North Carolina."

Professions like mechanic, electrician, truck driver, nurse or firefighter, for example, all require certifications in the civilian world but also overlap with military work.

The bill could affect enrollment at Central Carolina Community College, which is funded based on its enrollment. The college typically has about 300 student veterans on its various campuses in Lee, Chatham and Harnett counties — about 7 percent of total enrollment.

Tracey Gross, the college's veterans affair coordinator, said he has been following the bill but couldn't comment on how it might affect enrollment — if it becomes law — because there are still few details about how it would actually work.

Gross also said the college already gives some veterans a head start. Service members frequently come in with their military transcripts, he said, and can test out of introductory classes by proving they had the proper training.

"We have that happen all the time," he said.

Another bill, introduced into the U.S. Senate a week ago by Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) and a colleague from Iowa, would address an entirely different population: People who enroll in a community college and then transfer to four-year school but drop out before finishing their degree.

The bill would let people apply credits from their four-year school to get the associate's degree they started before transferring.

"Too many North Carolina community college students transfer to a four-year school but have to leave before graduation to start a job, care for a family member or because they can no longer afford the cost of college," Hagan said when announcing the bill. "And they leave the university with nothing to show for their years of hard work, even though many have met the requirements to receive an associate's degree."

An article published Tuesday in the New York Times highlighted that very issue, saying that hundreds of thousands of people are affected across the country and that, "For them, college is akin to a house that they had to make the downpayment on but can't live in. In a cost-benefit calculation, they get only the cost."

The leaders of both the UNC System and the North Carolina Community College System — which already are collaborating on a small-scale pilot program for this idea — have thrown their support behind Hagan's bill.

It's unclear how many students who started out at Central Carolina Community College, for example, might be affected by a program like the one Hagan is proposing. However, her office said the state's pilot program is already working with 2,000 students.

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