CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Student loan borrowers in the United States owe nearly $1.75 trillion as of April 2022, according to the Federal Reserve.
In North Carolina, the average student leaves college with more than $25,000 of debt.
The college and university are wrapping up the first cohort of students to benefit from the Road2Wingate program that started just about four years ago.
Emily Palardy, a current Wingate student, was a part of the inaugural class.
Palardy moved from the Philippines when she was 9.
“I am adopted, I’ve been in my family for about nine years," Palardy said.
College was always a planned part of her journey.
“I knew what I wanted to do was teach immediately, but I knew there was a process in order to be able to teach that included college," she said.
Like other students, affordability was always on her mind, along with wondering whether she could survive the rigor.
“All colleges are very expensive, but the great opportunity with South Piedmont is when you get your associates here you’re last two years at Wingate are a total of $5,000," Palardy said.
In the Road2Wingate Program, students get their associate's degree at SPCC and are guaranteed admission into Wingate.
The Road2Wingate is open to all first-semester students in Arts, Science, Fine Arts, and Education transfer degree programs.
"The most you could pay for an associate in a year and the two years at Wingate is $6,500," SPCC president Maria Pharr said. "That's maximum. And as I said, most students do not pay those full fees."
It’s a far cry from the more than $25,000 in debt that’s owed by the average college grad in North Carolina.
The program has also put a dent in the college dropout and graduation rates.
Students who transferred from SPCC the program saw an 89% or higher rate of a student's ability to continue on to the next term. There was a 21% overall increase in transfers between SPCC and Wingate University from the 2018-19 school year to 2021-22.
In addition, they saw a 70% increase in transfers between SPCC and Wingate of adult learners from 2018-19 to 2021-22.
"Students that attend South Piedmont and then choose to go to Wingate University, are choosing a very high-quality program that is extremely affordable," Pharr said. "And we're keeping the students in our own community. So it is a tremendous benefit for our community as well."
The overall college dropout rate in the US is around 40% for undergraduates. That figure jumps to almost 89% for low-income first-generation undergraduates.
"I think programs like this do help with that transition for students whose families may not be as familiar with the system and higher education and how it works," Wingate University President Rhett Brown said.
Brown said the partnerships between higher learning institutions will transform the trajectory of thousands of lives.
"It takes resources to provide good quality education and our resources often come from students, and often those are students who need us most and can afford us least," Brown said.
The program has saved students thousands in debt, including Palardy, who anticipates leaving college with a bachelor's degree debt-free.
The program has made the prospect of getting a four-year degree attainable for students who otherwise would have never walked through the institution's doors.