9 Investigates

Student debt crisis: Many students overlook community colleges

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Most of the people who go to college do so to make a better life for themselves. But millions of college graduates spend years paying back loans, even those with good jobs.

Action 9′s Jason Stoogenke has been covering the student debt crisis for years. He’s always looking for options for you, and he found one many people overlook: community colleges. He investigated two aspects of the schools you may not know.


Kayla, Koby and Keyshawn Brown are triplets.

“It’s like having your best friends with you your whole life. We do everything together 24/7,” Kayla told Stoogenke.

That included going to college. They’d all be going at the same time and that would give most parents sticker shock, including theirs.

"It would have been very hard," Koby said.

He said “would have been” because the Browns did something different. All three went to high school for two years. Then they went to Central Piedmont Community College for the next two for the Middle College High School program.

“The Middle College program is where high school students are afforded the opportunity to go to CPCC and take community college classes,” Kayla said.

It was all for free, even books. All community colleges in North Carolina have the Middle College High School program. They also have what’s called a dual enrollment program. It’s very similar. You still go to your high school, but you take college classes on top of that. It’s almost free. You may have to pitch in for books.

The Browns got their high school diplomas plus associate degrees, so they were halfway done with college and hadn’t spent a dime on tuition yet.

“Just trying to do everything in our power to make sure that (we) lessen the financial burden on our parents as much as possible,” Kayla said.

They all went on to four-year colleges. Kayla went to Winthrop. The boys went to North Carolina State. Two got full rides. One got a partial ride.

“It saved us a lot of time. It saved a lot of money,” Koby said. “(And) it allowed us to sort of narrow down what we wanted to do.”

CPCC’s dean of enrollment, JJ McEachern, told Stoogenke that’s key. “The sooner a student knows what they want to do, it helps in terms of reducing debt in the long run because you spend less time in college fishing around,” he said.

Kayla graduated from Winthrop and is now at N.C. State, getting her master’s in accounting. She already has a job lined up. Her brothers aren’t far behind. “I definitely have a roadmap for the future lined out,” Koby said.



Starting over

Wylena Jones was at the other end of the spectrum. She wasn’t in high school, getting a jump on college, a head start. She was older, in her 40s, looking to go to college for the first time, looking to start a new chapter in her life.

She told Stoogenke she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2005. She has successfully treated for cancer. It came back in 2009, and she recovered again.

“Everything worked out the way it was supposed to work out. And I’m here,” she said. “The nurses that I had, they were awesome.”

They were so awesome, Jones decided that’s what she wanted to do: be a nurse. But she’d have to go to school for it, and she chose CPCC.

It costs considerably less than most four-year schools or for-profit schools and has more than 300 programs.

Here are the numbers:

  • Two years of CPCC: $6,862
  • Two years at a college in the UNC System: $12,889.44 average
  • Two years at a public or private college in the Charlotte area: $45,541 average

“We believe that any student that starts here can actually graduate with no debt,” McEachern said. “And so, if you can take that first paycheck and put it in savings versus paying back a loan, that’s going to be much better long term.”

Speaking of the dean, Jones made the dean’s list several times, was president of an honor society and, most importantly, got her associate degree.

“I can’t believe it. Sometimes, I still can’t believe it that I have made it this far," said Jones.

She’s been a registered nurse for more than a year now. She works for Atrium, helping trauma patients and patients with other major surgeries. “I can’t believe I’m here sometimes.”

Even better, she has almost no student debt. “I would recommend (CPCC) to anyone. I mean, it’s an awesome school. Awesome,” Jones told Stoogenke.

Now, Jones is planning to go back to school to get a four-year degree in nursing.

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