Rather than succumb to the national trends affecting college access, North Carolina decided to reverse them.
Stung by declines in manufacturing, textiles and tobacco but emboldened by the possibilities of newer, skills-based industries in biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, the state tried a novel approach to encouraging low-income and minority students to apply to college: reaching out to them on the Web.
The approach was outlined at the Educause conference in Orlando, where the slogan "Uncommon Thinking for the Common Good" was posted around the convention hall. It's no secret that African-American and Hispanic enrollments lag, proportionally, behind those of their white and Asian-American counterparts, or that educators believe that encouraging low-income and first-generation students to finish college would prepare workers for the service and information economies that many states depend on for their survival.
Meanwhile, 41 percent of freshmen at University of North Carolina campuses are the first in their families to attend college, and such students are statistically at greater risk of not earning a degree. Enter the College Foundation of North Carolina, a partnership of the state's K-12 and college systems funded by the General Assembly and requested by UNC's Board of Governors.
Its services include online application and transcript services for high school students, telephone hotlines and online help and information on grants. Students can find free SAT test prep, a four-year planner and personalized services. The state has backed the main Web site, CFNC.org, with a major publicity campaign, with the result that 80 percent of high school and middle school parents in North Carolina are aware of it. Of those who know the portal, 84 percent say they anticipate using the services.
But the state's effort doesn't just live online. It's backed up by brick-and-mortar support: In 2007, the CFNC held a College Application Week at 109 high schools for five days in November. In essence, schools would walk their seniors through the process of applying to college online. Over 12,800 students participated, sending over 21,440 applications. This year, the event will be statewide at over 300 high schools.
And the results are already coming in: North Carolina has shown the greatest increase in college participation rates among all states for low-income students from 1999 to 2006, at 3.4 percent, which encompasses the CFNC efforts but not the on-site application drives, according to George R. Dixon, vice provost emeritus at North Carolina State University and a senior fellow at the Institute for College and Career Success.
The rate currently stands at above 26 percent, up from 15 percent in 1993 and 20 percent in 2001.