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Governor’s guarantee comes with a caution

Governor’s guarantee comes with a caution

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UNC-Chapel Hill offers the Carolina Covenant, N.C. State the Pack Promise.

Call this the Governor’s Guarantee.

In his State of the State address Monday night, Mike Easley laid out a path for students from low- and moderate-income families to earn a four-year university degree debt-free. If the legislature funds the plan, more North Carolinians can prepare themselves to succeed in a demanding new economy ... if they’re prepared to succeed in college.

The governor borrows from ideas already implemented by UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State. They offer grants covering all costs for qualifying students in return for a few hours of work-study employment per week. Funds come largely from private sources raised by the universities.

That’s a great deal for students admitted to Carolina and State, the most selective branches of the UNC system. What about those who attend N.C. A&T, UNCG or other state universities? All offer grants and scholarships, but they don’t guarantee that students of modest means will graduate debt-free. Paying off those loans later can be a heavy burden for young people entering the work force.

Easley wants the state to step up by building on an existing program: Learn and Earn. It begins in high school, where ambitious students can take college-credit courses. The governor proposes offering Learn and Earn in more schools and then adding financial aid for a year of study at a community college for an associate degree, followed by pursuit of a four-year degree at a UNC institution.

“The plan is not a free lunch,” Eas­ley warned. “You have to earn it. ... We will supply a grant, but you have to keep your grades up and be willing to work 10 hours a week.”

That’s a small price to pay for the opportunity to learn skills needed to fill good jobs. The state’s return on its investment is the chance to gain industries looking for highly qualified employees.

Easley’s proposal was short on details, such as costs, eligibility and the sort of campus jobs students would be asked to perform — would they replace current employees in maintenance, food-service, housekeeping and even clerical positions?

More importantly, success depends on a greater effort at the ground level. Expanding college opportunities won’t mean much unless more students are prepared for college work. Today, poor retention and graduation rates at most UNC campuses illustrate serious deficiencies. The governor set forth exciting possibilities, but his financial guarantees can be only as good as the academic abilities of North Carolina’s young people.

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