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Community colleges look beyond enrollment to focus on attainment and economic mobility

Across North Carolina, 58 community colleges stand as cornerstones in their counties. Each college has a story, fueled by its own challenges and triumphs. The Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research out of NC State’s College of Education exists to elevate these schools, their leadership, and their students’ contributions to the overall wellbeing of our state. Last week, the Belk Center hosted the second Presidents’ Academy in partnership with the N.C. Association of Community College Presidents, the North Carolina Community College System, Achieving the Dream, and the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence program. 

Consisting of two symposiums, one for eastern presidents and the other for western presidents, the Presidents’ Academy focused on presidential strategies to increase credential attainment and labor market outcomes. Previously, community colleges have been focused on enrollment challenges. While enrollment is still a notable issue for many schools, there has been a shift towards prioritizing pathways to credential attainment and sustainable living wage jobs for their students.

From destinations to pathways

Mary Rittling, former president of Davidson Community College and advisor to the Belk Center, explained why attainment matters. She noted, “[Community colleges] really are the foundation for so many of our citizens to at least begin the pathway for educational attainment, livelihood, and social mobility, and all the things that we would love to see our citizens have.”

Rittling played a large role in planning the symposiums along with Wilkes Community College President Jeff Cox and Stanly Community College President John Enamait. Rittling explained that historically, they have viewed community college as a destination for students. Instead, she stressed, we need to start looking at our schools as pathways that set students up for lifelong learning. This is a change in mindset that starts with leadership, which is the goal of the symposiums. 

“It’s not just how many students can we get in the door,” Cox said, “And it’s not even just completion — I mean those students we get in that we actually see through to graduation. But it’s more than that. It’s — are those who come, who finish, and get out — are we really impacting their lives? Are they getting out and going into jobs where they can earn a living wage?”

Becoming the bridge

As a current president, Cox sees the need for professional development for community college presidents. With an increase in the number of new presidents in the last five years, professional development is even more critical.

Cox spoke about the need for community colleges to become the bridge between students wanting better jobs and employers wanting skilled workers. 

“We’ve got to figure out how to reach that student who wants a better tomorrow, but doesn’t know how to get there,” Cox said. “And the companies who want qualified employees, but don’t know how to find them, we’ve got to be that bridge between those two.”

To do this, colleges need to understand their data. At the symposiums, presidents received data briefs on their regional labor markets, including data on the top jobs their students are getting and the top jobs in their area. Presidents shared stories of how they can use data like this to work with companies to create certificate programs and internships for their students that lead to family supporting jobs.

Looking at the data revealed important trends. One president noted that if you only look at wage data, they should not be advising students to go into early childhood education because it does not pay a living wage. According to 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the mean annual wage for preschool teachers in North Carolina was $28,260. However, if you look at the overall goal of creating a sustainable cycle of economic mobility for families, early childhood education is critical, and training high quality early childhood educators is an important job of community colleges.

“Early childhood development is critical for our state, but it is the least valued,” Surry Community College President David Shockley stated. 

Importance of data stories

There is a lot of work ahead for the community college presidents. Dr. Karen Stout, CEO of Achieving the Dream and the keynote speaker, encouraged the room to rise to the challenges at hand. Stout travels across the country working with community colleges, and according to her, there is no better place for this type of work than North Carolina. Stout said she doesn’t know of any other state that has the type of investment and support like North Carolina’s community colleges have from the Belk Center.

Stout emphasized the importance of using data to drive decisions, especially regarding labor market outcomes. She talked about the importance of creating data stories; instead of just relying on hard numbers, Stout recommended bringing the story of each school’s unique region and institution into the narrative. 

A solid foundation

The conversations started at the symposiums will carry on past the sessions’ end, which is exactly what the Belk Center wants. These symposiums are meant to create a solid foundation of professional development for our state’s community college leaders, shift their focus to a common goal, and give them the resources necessary to effect change. There are many changes ahead, and community college presidents will play a leading role.

Alli Lindenberg

Alli Lindenberg is a multimedia reporter for EducationNC.

Molly Osborne

Molly Osborne is the director of policy for EducationNC and the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.