RALEIGH (July 13, 2022) – If you didn’t already, we hope our series on North Carolina’s community colleges helped you appreciate the many services these 58 colleges provide their communities – the Swiss Army knives of higher education, we called them.
TRAINING FOR NEWCOMERS
In fact, an economic-impact study found that North Carolina community colleges add more than $19 billion a year to the state’s economy – $17 billion of it in increased earnings for their graduates. The study found that on average, an NC community college graduate with an associate degree earns $6,900 more a year than a high-school graduate.
“We have over a $19 billion impact on the state’s economy, supporting over 300,000 jobs – and that’s rippling through our economy,” said Thomas Stith, President of the NC Community College System.
TAILORED TO LOCAL JOBS
Community colleges serve the unique needs of local employers – and workers. For example:
- Pitt Community College trains at-risk high school students to become workers for Grady-White Boats and other employers in Greenville;
- Forsyth Tech provides customized training for employees at Reynolds American;
- Davidson-Davie Community College provides technicians to keep the robots used by local furniture factories running;
- And Davidson-Davie provides central sterile processing technicians to sterilize instruments for local hospitals and surgery centers.
“We focus on who our employers are, and then what kinds of customized skills they need their workforce to have,” Forsyth Tech President Janet Spriggs told us.
The truck-driver training Davidson-Davie and other colleges provide meet not just a local need, but a critical national need, given the shortage of drivers that existed before the pandemic and the nation’s supply-chain woes since.
And Wilkes Community College makes an economic splash of its own by hosting the MerleFest “traditional-plus” music festival every year. The festival attracts fans from across the world and generates a $12 million economic impact for the region.
ON-RAMP TO A 4-YEAR DEGREE
Increasingly, North Carolinians view their community colleges as a way to get a head start – at a very reasonable cost – on a four-year degree.
Stith told us students who obtain an associate degree from a community college can expect a seamless transition to a four-year university at one-third the cost – and they perform every bit as well as students who start at a four-year school.
In particular – to address other shortages that existed before the pandemic – the state has launched “2+2” programs for aspiring teachers and nurses to start at a community college and limit their student debt.
At Forsyth Tech’s Stokes County campus, Spriggs told us a survey revealed Stokes residents wanted Early College for their kids to get a head-start on college – so that’s what the campus provides.
NC State University Chancellor Randy Woodson told us how community colleges offer a critical path to NC State, sending about 1,000 students a year to State and still more to other universities across the UNC System. NC State formed partnerships with 13 colleges in particular to ensure smooth transfers.
And by this fall, half of the 350 Goodnight Scholars at NC State are community college transfer students – most of them first-generation or students of color, and all of them majors in STEM fields.
WRAPAROUND SERVICES ESSENTIAL
Students at community colleges are sometimes more economically fragile than students at four-year universities. We learned that wraparound services to support them are critical to their success: Child care. Transportation. Car repairs. Utilities.
And yes, sadly, food.
These students are striving to better themselves and their families’ futures. But they need help: The four food pantries at Forsyth Tech’s campuses even stock pet food. Forsyth Tech also connects students with non-criminal legal services through Wake Forest University’s Law School.
Even before the current spike in gas prices, a student at Wilkes Community College told us how helpful the gas cards are that the college provides her. And a clothes closet at Central Piedmont Community College supplies students with dresses or suits to wear to job interviews.
At Pitt Community College, Rebecca Warren, Director of the VISIONS Program, told us it all starts with a personal relationship – if a high-school student has a football game or a school play, their VISIONS counselor will be there. Students have their counselors’ cell-phone numbers and call at all hours.
“That’s gonna let them know that we’re there for them to succeed,” she said.
LOUSY FACULTY PAY
Yet despite the many services these colleges provide – many uniquely tailored to their local economy – we also learned NC community-college instructors are paid even less, on average, than K-12 public school teachers.
Though North Carolina has the third-largest community college system in the country, its instructors rank 41st in pay, Stith told us.
And even though the State Board of Community Colleges offered a well-thought-out plan to raise faculty pay 8% over three years to reach the average faculty pay in neighboring states, the General Assembly gave state employees a raise of just 3.5% this year – despite 8.6% inflation and a $6.5 billion surplus.
That’s an embarrassment. The folks who equip North Carolina students to be the workforce of tomorrow deserve better.
‘FREE’ COMMUNITY COLLEGE? NOT HERE…
Our Republican neighbors in Tennessee broke new ground in 2014 with the Tennessee Promise – free community college for high-school graduates. In just three years, the state saw a 15% increase in community college students. And by 2019, at least 30 other states had launched similar programs.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper gets it – he’s repeatedly proposed free community college in North Carolina, and he used federal pandemic relief money to provide tuition-free community college known as the Longleaf Commitment for just two years.
Yet Tennessee seems to understand something North Carolina doesn’t. Though some colleges in North Carolina have found resources to offer tuition-free college, our legislature won’t go for it.
Pitt Community College President Lawrence Rouse and Forsyth Tech President Janet Spriggs both endorsed a statewide system of free tuition as a way to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.
Forsyth Tech welding student Mark Plymale told us he planned to start working after high school until he heard about tuition-free community college through Cooper’s program.
“Forsyth Tech made sense for me when they announced that they were going to do the free college,” Plymale said.
TRUE LOCAL SUPPORTERS
There’s a reason they’re called community colleges – they enjoy incredible support in their communities.
Throughout our series, we discovered how local businesses and philanthropists step up to support into their local colleges:
- Through his family foundation, Grady-White Boats owner Eddie Smith has put $4 million into the VISIONS Program at Pitt Community College – not just to train workers for Grady-White, but to reduce dropout rates and build an educated workforce in Eastern North Carolina.
At first, Smith says, he thought the program might help four or five at-risk students.
It has since helped more than 1,200.
- As part of a $25 million nationwide initiative, Bank of America put $1 million into the Bridge to Careers program at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte to connect Black and Hispanic/Latino students with high-demand jobs. More than half chose to pursue jobs in health care.
- After Wilkes County saw the second-biggest drop in per-capita income in the nation, the Leonard G. Herring Family Foundation and families of other former Lowe’s executives provided support for a strategic plan that put career coaches in every high school that feeds Wilkes Community College; increased the graduation rate at the college from 25% to an astounding 45% in just four years; and created a non-profit that aims to connect graduates with jobs in the digital economy without leaving Wilkes County. “Live. Train. Remain,” its slogan says.
We hope this look at North Carolina’s community colleges leaves you with profound appreciation for the important work they do – vital work for the North Carolinians in their communities.