Attacking a degree gap

Federal data show a dramatic -- and stubborn -- gap in the number of whites and the number of minorities earning bachelor’s degrees.

In 2015, among whites 25 to 29 years old, 43 percent had obtained a four-year college or university degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics’ May 2016 report on “The Condition of Education 2016.” Twenty years earlier, the gap was actually smaller -- 29 percent of whites vs. 15 percent of blacks. Hispanics lagged both groups -- 16 percent in 2015, 9 percent in 1995.

N. C. Central University, founded more than a century ago to provide higher education opportunity for minorities and later the first public liberal arts institution for African-Americans in the nation, has long been committed to narrowing that gap. This week, in partnership with nearby Alamance Community College, it took another step toward that goal.

NCCU and the two-year community college signed a joint-degree agreement on Tuesday in Graham. Leaders of the two institutions envision quickly establishing a “two plus two” degree program. Alamance Community College students will be able to earn an associate’s degree from that school, then seamlessly transfer to NCCU for the last two years of a bachelor’s degree.

Many public two- and four-year institutions are exploring such partnerships. (NCCU also works with Wake Tech, Vance-Granville Community College, and Durham Technical and Community College.

The two-plus-two sequence lowers the cost of a college degree, especially helping students from lower income brackets minimize the debt load with which they finish school. Perhaps even more important, it can help students who are first in their families to attend college to overcome a “belief gap” that can, as Alamance president Algie Gatewood said, can undercut their ambitions. And with twice as many whites as minorities earning college degrees, it stands to reason that more minority students will be struggling with that belief gap exacerbated by having fewer role models for college aspirations.

“We can help students with financial aid,” Gatewood said at Tuesday’s announcement of the partnership with NCCU. “But if one does not believe that he or she belongs on a college campus, you can have all the money in the world and it will not make a difference.”

Officials see almost boundless possibilities for growing their partnership, but expect to start cautiously. “There is no limit to the number of programs that we would do, as we begin to plan, but we’re going to take it one step at a time, one program at a time, and continue to introduce more,” said Johnson Akinleye, NCCU’s interim chancellor.

The partnership promises to reap substantial benefits, for the institutions and most important for the students they serve.