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Community colleges build bridges between present and future

Reach NC Voices team touring the Rowan-Cabarrus Community College’s Fire and Rescue training grounds. Caroline Parker/EdNC

“We’ll be a bridge between K-12 education and higher ed, and a bridge between the present and future for our students.”

Robert Shackleford, president of Randolph Community College, responded quickly when asked about his view of the future of his institution and the community college system as a whole. 

The story of Asheboro and Randolph Community College are inextricably linked, not unlike many other towns and institutions across North Carolina. Leaders frequently speak about the critical role community colleges play in economic development. They are on the front lines of business recruitment,  retention, and rapid response efforts if a business closes.

Shackleford’s office is filled with images of his inspiration, President Abraham Lincoln. He admires Lincoln’s steady leadership style and his wisdom.

Placing students in jobs

On this rainy Tuesday in November, the Haas Integrated Machining Institute on the Randolph campus is buzzing with students at work.  “I feel like I am working in the Taj Mahal when I walk through these doors,” one student said.

The “Taj Mahal” reference was not just about the gleaming machines, funded by a grant the college won from Haas Machining, but it also represented the student’s belief in the culture of the institution. The student said previously people told him he, “couldn’t do what he was doing.”

The student came to the Institute on a day when he did not have class because he was eager to practice his newfound skills. His wide smile and enthusiasm for sharing what he was building that day was contagious.

Shackleford said the Integrated Machining Institute expanded at the request of local manufacturers who had told his staff that if they doubled the size of the class, they would hire every graduate. They succeeded in that challenge, and the demand for growth remains.

A visit a few days later to Rowan-Cabarrus Community College’s Salisbury campus, nestled just off of I-85, highlighted similar success stories. Janet Spriggs, chief operating officer at Rowan-Cabarrus, spoke of building “sustainable employment,” which they define as jobs that have a future and offer an opportunity to meet or exceed the previous generation’s quality of life.

It was a term, but also a mission.

Spriggs and other faculty leaders said one challenge community colleges face is a misconception of many trades as “dirty jobs” for careers that now are as likely to involve computers and robots as they are grease. This outdated view is built on perceptions around manufacturing, automobile mechanics, and farming that come from decades ago.

In the Haas Institute at Randolph Community College or the dental clinic at Rowan-Cabarrus, technology and innovation are core to vocations today, and the concept of community colleges only as technical and vocational institutions is dated.

Rowan-Cabarrus’ mission statement includes the phrase, “improving lives and building community.” It is clear that sustainable employment is part and parcel of the overarching vision, but it does not end there. Staff also talked about meeting the challenges of the broader community beyond employment, particularly for aging populations. They also have a desire to play a leadership role in building the counties they serve into a healthier, more active places.


Community college leaders from several institutions spoke about the need to expand the vision of community colleges by community members, philanthropists, and policymakers.  

The work of a building a more nuanced, expansive narrative for the community college system begins with an understanding of the types of jobs available for their graduates, including compensation but also other benefits. 

At Rowan-Cabarrus, their leadership team discussed their consistent effort to raise expectations as they share the story of their brand. Rowan-Cabarras Community College President Carol Spalding pointed out that their institution offers a “better deal” for many families both in terms of the range of offerings, but also in terms of affordability. The “better deal” is one of the reasons the school is a first choice for many students, Spalding said.

The expansive nature of the community college system is evident in the technological innovations on display at Rowan-Cabarrus.  Solar panels line the top of the new health sciences building, generating energy purchased by Duke Energy to generate revenue for scholarships.

Expanding the narrative is not just about spreading word of new technology; it includes documenting the past successes of the system including the Randolph Community College photography program which has won widespread recognition.

The colleges also play an important role in partnership with the four-year college system. A growing number of students begin at community college, but transfer to a University of North Carolina system school. Shackleford’s “bridge” concept is supported by the data which shows transfer students from community colleges in North Carolina perform as well or better than students who began their college career at the four-year institution.   

One challenge for community colleges is serving a broad student population, ranging from 14 year-old students at the early college level to a recent 73 year-old Rowan-Cabarrus graduate. It is perhaps a cliche to say that their are no “typical” students at the community college system, but it is true that they serve a broader age range, set of life experiences, and diversity of socioeconomic statuses than many institutions in public life.

Another challenge of the community college narrative is a truth embedded in the name itself— they are often deeply rooted in community. The system is comprised of 58 different institutions serving unique communities across the state. The inability to tell a single narrative contributes to very practical challenges around funding. The community college system has more than 700,000 students, yet they are third in funding behind the UNC system, which has 225,000 students, and the K-12 system, with just more than 1.4 million students.

Recently, the NC Community College system requested multi-year support of continuing education programs of $23 million per year (spread out across all 58 campuses), but were allocated $2 million for one-time state funding during the last legislative session.

Share your thoughts on the future of the community college system and your own local institution.

Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the chief of growth for EducationNC.