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A small box of chocolates with a large, compelling message

Shortly after Stephen C. Scott arrived at Wake Technical Community College in fall 2003, culinary faculty and students gave their new president a gift of chocolates. Their confections came in small boxes designed for four pieces — only these boxes actually contained five. “You told us you wanted us to exceed expectations,” Scott recalled them saying.

From time to time over his 15-year presidency, Scott would hand out these five-in-a-four-box of chocolates to his guests as a symbolic gesture. “I wanted our college to exceed the expectations of our customers,’’ he said.

Scott defines the college’s “customers’’ as students, executives of business and industry, and elected officials. Its customers include more than 70,000 students, some traveling a pathway to a four-year university, some seeking an on-ramp to a career in applied engineering, computer technology, health care, restaurants and more, some adults with a BA wanting an additional skill, some needing basic workforce preparedness. Most students take classes part-time or online, many while working or caring for children. Its full-time-equivalent enrollment is a hefty 20,894.

During a period of robust county population growth and economic expansion, Wake Tech has emerged as the largest of North Carolina’s 58 community colleges. It reaches customers across the county through six “campuses,” two “education centers” and the Vernon Malone Academy, a public school-community college collaboration.

As part of EdNC’s community-college blitz this week, I visited the Southern Wake Campus on Monday to interview Scott on his last day as president and to talk to several faculty members. Before coming to Wake Tech, Scott served as president of the community colleges in Kinston and Whiteville, as well as executive vice president of the system. Given his experiences, I steered the conversation toward the issues and challenges facing North Carolina and its community colleges in the near future.

Let’s focus on three topics, worthy of deliberation and debate:

  • Community colleges, Scott said, are a “game-changer’’ for rural communities. And yet, at a time of population loss and economic distress in pockets of rural North Carolina, Scott held out the prospect of structural and managerial adjustments to the system.

Consolidation, he said, is a politically risky “third rail’’ within the system. Still, he suggested something akin to his strategy in Wake County — dispersed education delivery with a centralized administration. A regional approach, he said, would “consolidate functions and keep a presence in all of the communities.”

  • Scott advocated a new calculus for state funding. The current formula basically provides each community college with funding based on its previous year’s enrollment. Colleges also get tuition revenue, philanthropic grants, and funds from industry-recruitment incentive packages for customized training. Major fiscal issues include faculty pay in competition with private industry and big-ticket equipment for training.

Scott proposed a combination of base-level appropriations and performance-based funding — “a formula that would reward what legislators want to see happen.’’ While acknowledging the difficulty of arriving at a consensus balance of factors for 58 colleges, he said such a formula would take into account job placements, degree and certification attainment, and transfers to universities.

While 70,000 students suggest that Wake Tech is not a secret asset, it is apparent that community colleges often fall behind public schools and universities in legislative deliberations. “An after-thought,” said Scott. “We have a very powerful university system, and the privates are very powerful. It tends to be to their advantage to keep baby in the corner.”

  • Scott opposes free tuition. “I think people need skin in the game,” he said. “When students have skin in the game, they do much, much better.”

Gov. Roy Cooper has proposed NC Grow, which would use education lottery funds to make community college free for high school graduates by providing “last-dollar’’ costs not covered by financial aid. He has also tapped federal funds to offer “finish line’’ help to students who run short of money just before community college completion.

The Democratic governor and other advocates of free tuition have their eyes on Tennessee’s experience. On the day I interviewed Scott, the Nashville Tennessean reported data on the state’s two free-tuition programs. As many as 31,000 adults — far exceeding expectations — showed interest in grants designed to entice adults 25 years and older to pursue associate’s degrees or job-skill certifications. Tennessee’s “last-dollar’’ initiative, launched three years ago by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, “has shown strong results in getting thousands of students to go to college after high school,” the Tennessean reported. “Graduate rates, however, have remained low despite some recent increases.”

In his opposition to free tuition, Scott emphasizes achievement and completion. In advocating free tuition, the governor seeks to ease access.

How well North Carolina negotiates, balances and resolves these big issues will determine whether not only Wake Tech but the state’s system of community colleges will exceed expectations in meeting the demands of the skill-intense economy.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is the Director of the Program in Public Life and Professor of the Practice at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and the Vice Chairman of EducationNC.