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Removing barriers: A proposal to simplify the Residency Determination Service

This is Part Four of a series on the Residency Determination Service. Part One gives a comprehensive overview of the issues surrounding residency determination at community colleges, Part Two looks at student and staff experiences with RDS, and Part Three explores the creation of RDS.

Every day that McDowell Technical Community College President John Gossett leaves his office, he walks by a computer. Every day, he sees a student sitting at that computer, working on an online application.

He remembers one student very well: “I saw her several times in that chair, so I finally stopped and said, ‘Are we not helping you? Are we not serving you?'”

“She said, ‘Well I get to a certain spot and I need more information and I have to go find it.'”

Gossett asked how often she had been back to work on the application, and she said five or six times. He asked her how many classes she wanted to take, and she replied that she only needed one more class to become a certified nursing assistant (CNA).

“That’s when my head exploded,” said Gossett.

Gossett is describing the Residency Determination Service (RDS), an online application used by the state’s community colleges and four-year institutions to determine if students qualify for in-state tuition. In the last year that community colleges have been using RDS, staff, leadership, and State Board members have raised concerns that the application has become a barrier to admission for potential students. To simplify RDS and remove perceived barriers, the community college system is asking the General Assembly to repeal part of the law governing how residency status is determined for tuition purposes.

Why is this all so important? On average, the annual tuition cost for an in-state student at a community college is $2,400 compared to $8,500 for an out-of-state student — a difference that can make or break an individual’s decision to pursue higher education. By simplifying the RDS application, community colleges hope more students will complete it, qualify for in-state tuition, and enroll in college.

The current issue surrounding RDS is rooted in a law first written in the 1970s. The law entitled “Provisions for determining residency status for tuition purposes” lays out the requirements an applicant must meet to qualify as a “resident for tuition purposes.” Specifically, the applicant must have established legal residence (domicile) in North Carolina, maintained that residence for 12 consecutive months before the start of school, and intend to stay in North Carolina not merely for the sake of school.

Community colleges are not trying to change this part of the law. Instead, it is the next part, section (e) of G.S. §116-143.1, that they are hoping to get repealed. Section (e) states:

“When an individual presents evidence that the individual has living parent(s) or court-appointed guardian of the person, the legal residence of such parent(s) or guardian shall be prima facie evidence of the individual’s legal residence, which may be reinforced or rebutted relative to the age and general circumstances of the individual by the other evidence of legal residence required of or presented by the individual…” 

What all that boils down to is this: if you are applying to college and your parents are alive (or you have a court-appointed guardian), then the law assumes you live with your parents or guardian unless you prove otherwise. The law goes on to state that if your parents or guardian live out of state, you are not assumed to live with them if you have lived in North Carolina for five consecutive years prior to enrolling in school.

For years, individual colleges were in charge of applying this residency law to determine which applicants qualified for in-state tuition. Blue Ridge Community College President Laura Leatherwood explained how they did this process at her previous institution: “We had check sheets of information they had to provide that showed that they were a resident of North Carolina before we would actually award them in-state tuition rates.” Students could provide this information electronically or on paper, depending on which they preferred, and college staff would review it, reaching out to students to get additional information as needed.

In 2015, the General Assembly tasked the State Education Assistance Authority (SEAA) with creating a centralized, standardized residency determination process. Together with their agent, College Foundation, Inc., they created the Residency Determination Service, which was approved in 2016 and began implementation in 2017. For more on the origins of RDS, read the first article in the series here.

To build the online RDS application, SEAA and CFI looked to the residency law. The statute does not provide any specific guidance for an age where the presumption that students live with their parents would fall off, presumably because it was written at a time when most students applying for college were doing so from their parents’ homes. However, the law does provide for the ability to look at age and general circumstance. So SEAA and CFI officials looked for a common sense solution while tracking the pilot group and first users of RDS.

In May 2018, looking to the federal financial aid programs, which presume that anyone 24 or older is independent of their parents, RDS officials made the decision to remove the presumption of living with one’s parents for applicants 24 and older. This decision was in part based on feedback they received from the community colleges.

Gwen Canady, chair of the advisory group that oversees RDS, said of the decision, “We definitely are recognizing the changing demographics of the modern North Carolina. It is really our goal to provide as much accessibility. That’s part of the higher education goal, right? We definitely want to be sensitive to that — again, while still operating within the law.” 

What this means is that applicants younger than 24 will see questions about their parents, including social security numbers, tax forms, and employment information, as they are filling out the RDS application online. This information may be easy to provide for the “typical” college applicant — an 18-year-old high school graduate living with her parents — but many community college students are not the “typical” applicant. Community college leadership and staff argue this assumption is creating a barrier for their students.

“The RDS is a major barrier because [it assumes] that their domicile is the same as the parents,” Halifax Community College President Michael Elam explained. “In many cases our students are much older or they’re not traditional or they’re not living with parents, and they can determine their domicile in another way.”

“I would like to say I’m a technologically savvy person,” Leatherwood said, “but I will tell you there’s information on there that there’s no way I’d be able to find out — my mother or father’s social security number or tax returns.” 

And it’s not just that some students cannot find this information. It’s that the time and effort it takes to track down these documents are themselves obstacles to students enrolling in community colleges.

“Our students are also susceptible to life issues,” Elam said. “If something happens that disappoints them or that slows them down in the admissions process, they will walk away and we lose them forever.”

Several community college presidents with whom I spoke described the last minute nature of enrollment at community colleges compared to the four-year universities. Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College President Dennis King explained:

“At the university level, when that student gets an acceptance letter in April and starts in August, he’s got about three or four months to get things together to prove that he is not a resident of his parents’ domicile. That’s a different process from ours. When [a community college] student makes a decision on the 15th of August that he wants to enroll at A-B Tech for classes that begin on the 17th … He doesn’t have any time to run down documents or argue with RDS over his emancipation. The law in its present form does not take any of this into consideration.”

Given their knowledge of these issues, many community college staff and leadership felt that RDS would hurt enrollment. However, they didn’t know for sure until RDS presented a report to the North Carolina Association of Community College Presidents (NCACCP) in June 2018.

The report showed the results of the 289,142 students who started an online RDS application for a North Carolina community college, UNC school, or private or independent college or university from January 1, 2017 to January 1, 2018. Note that this is before RDS removed the presumption that applicants 24 years or older live with their parents.

Of the 289,142 students who started RDS during this one-year period, 6.31 percent (18,243 students) did not finish the application. And of those 18,243 students who did not finish, 40 percent (6,788 students) stopped during questions about their dependency status, the largest percentage by far of all the questions. The dependency questions differ based on the age of the applicant, but at all age categories (under 18, 18-23, and 24 and older), the questions where the largest percentage of applicants stopped were the dependency questions.

After seeing this report, NCACCP formed a working group to study the issue and make recommendations for changes to help more students enroll in college. The working group was comprised of four presidents, all with backgrounds in student services: Blue Ridge Community College President Laura Leatherwood, Halifax Community College President Michael Elam, McDowell Tech President John Gossett, and Asheville-Buncombe Tech President Dennis King.

The group started by looking at the data and quickly determined they needed to address the biggest road block for students: the dependency questions.

“We looked at where they were getting derailed within the system,” said Leatherwood, “and we said let’s focus in and let’s address that particular issue.”

They realized that the issue lies with the residency law, not with RDS itself.

“It became obvious to the task force that … if we could get rid of those questions that are dependent on parents, that would eliminate the barrier, and these students could go through the process,” said Surry Community College President David Shockley, who is the current president of the NCACCP.

So, the group proposed repealing section (e) of the residency statute (quoted above), stating in their proposal, “The law would no longer presume that the student and parents have the same domicile. The student would simply have to show his or her domicile is NC without regard to his or her parent(s).” In November, the State Board of Community Colleges approved the proposal and added it to their 2019 legislative agenda.

The presidents are hopeful that the General Assembly will pass their policy during the 2019 legislative session and that it will result in fewer students dropping out of RDS and more students enrolling in college.

“This is a moderate step, which simply says that the student isn’t automatically living with his or her parents,” said King.

Leatherwood added, “In a perfect world, we would like to see every one of our community college students that start the application process complete the process so we can actually get them admitted into our colleges.”

If the policy is passed, the working group will monitor the RDS data to see if the policy change is resulting in higher numbers of students completing RDS and enrolling in school. If it does not appear to be making a difference, they will explore other options. 

“We have to continue to be vigilant, and we have to study the process,” Elam said. “For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. We want to make sure the reaction is close to what we want it to be, or we’re going to have to look for other ways to tweak the process to continue to make it better for our students.”

Ultimately, the presidents see their proposal as a way to increase access to higher education and uphold the mission of the community college system.

“We’re an open door institution,” Gossett said. “I’d like to see that open door open up again. I’m not saying it closed, but it definitely moved in that direction.”

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with the correct spelling of the name of McDowell Tech’s president, John Gossett.

Molly Osborne Urquhart

Molly Osborne is the vice president and director of operations for EducationNC.