A Union County man is closing a 20-year gap on his resume, thanks to a partnership between a community college and private university.
Richard Baker, 40, is employed as a cross-connection coordinator for Union County Water System.
He's also a husband and father, juggling work and family responsibilities, all while chasing his academic dreams.
Baker just completed the Associate in Arts in a Year (AAY) program at South Piedmont Community College.
The program caps tuition for students so the maximum they'll be paying out-of-pocket is $1,500.
"Could be even less with financial aid and other funding sources," said Jessy Naito, assistant director of admissions at South Piedmont Community College.
The AAY is putting Baker on a path to get his bachelor's degree at Wingate University.
Baker says this moment has been nearly 20 years in the making.
"I've always told my sons, as far as education, to go at least to the level I've gone to," Baker said. "Education is very important, and I wanted to instill that in my sons so they can have a brighter future and be better then I am."
His first attempt at getting his business management degree while living in Florida was short-lived, and he racked up thousands of dollars in debt.
Baker says he then made the tough decision to pause his educational journey.
"We had some family issues and ended up taking in some of my wife Ulunda's siblings. I ended up having to stop school to get a second job," Baker said.
In 2012, the family relocated from Florida to North Carolina for better job opportunities.
Nearly 10 years later, in December 2021, Baker finished his associate's degree in just one year from SPCC.
"It was a lot of work, it was a lot on my family," Baker said. "In August, I ended up getting sick and going to the hospital. But I was able to catch up on all the work I missed. I was on a computer with an oxygen mask on because I wasn't able to breathe properly. I still graduated on time in December."
Baker says he's now able to pursue his higher education goals and get his bachelor's in two years, by way of the Gateway to Wingate scholarship.
The scholarship provides a pathway for South Piedmont Community College students to get their bachelor's at Wingate University, at an affordable cost. The scholarship caps the annual out-of-pocket Wingate tuition at $2,500 per year for students.
In order to be eligible for the scholarship, students must receive their associate's from SPCC and be admitted to Wingate. They must also have maintained a 2.5 grade-point average.
Baker says the Gateway scholarship is a game-changer because it provides another route for students to get the degree without having to worry about accumulating student debt.
“I have about $14,000 [in student loan debt] I'm still paying for," Baker said.
The Wingate site states 98% of its students receive some form of financial aid, and 86% of students are getting nonacademic aid.
Tuition at Wingate for a first-year undergraduate is $40,096 and $41,316 for second-year and beyond undergraduates.
This is slightly above average for private nonprofit universities, which is $38,070, according to the College Board, a not-for-profit tracking trends in tuition costs.
Baker says because of the Gateway option, his price tag for both his associate's and future bachelor's at Wingate is $6,500.
“You won’t have all that debt you would traditionally have from going to school," Baker said.
Baker says getting his bachelor's in business management and organizational leadership will enable him to help more families across our area.
In 2021, the Bakers launched a nonprofit called Serve Unity Outreach, where volunteers participate in community improvement projects across the area.
The Bakers say Serve Unity Outreach has partnered with several organizations, including Union County Public Schools, to help enrich the lives of families. This includes projects where volunteers make snack bags for kids in low-income households.
"With the degree, I see Serve Unity going nationwide, maybe even worldwide," Baker said.
The Gateway to Wingate scholarship has expanded to Stanly Community College and Central Piedmont Community College.
Wingate leaders say the partnership will help to close the state’s educational attainment gap by assisting more residents with getting their bachelor’s degree.
"Student debt can become a burden that makes a college degree sort of unattainable," said Wingate Provost Jeff Frederick. "What we hope is this will help people to graduate, go right into their job, and to have as little, maybe even no student debt as possible."