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How is the state going to increase community college enrollment? 

Over the past 12 years, community college enrollment statewide has dropped by 2%. But if you take Wake Technical Community College out of the equation, that figure jumps to 6%. 

A task force charged with examining the reasons for enrollment declines across the system and coming up with remedies for the issue met at the Sandhills Community College this week. Created by the North Carolina State Board of Community Colleges, the task force is a who’s who of community college presidents, experts, state board members, and others. 

The task force saw a chart that measures the enrollment increases and declines by college since 2007, just prior to the great recession that hit in 2008.

The chart shows that only 19 of the state’s 58 community colleges have experienced an enrollment increase in that time. Wake Technical Community College is far and away doing the best, with a 60% enrollment increase.

Courtesy of NC Community College System

But, when dual enrollment — high school students enrolled in both high school and community college — is taken out of the picture, the numbers are starker.

Without these students, the number of community colleges that have experienced an enrollment increase in the last 12 years falls from 19 to seven.

Courtesy of NC Community College System

“If we do lose dual enrollment funding, what is the potential impact?” asked Bill Schneider, associate vice president for Research and Performance Management in the community college system.

But Dale McGinnis, president of Richmond Community College, said that while he’s heard concerns about colleges losing funding for dual enrollment programs, he thinks that fear is misplaced. 

“Dual enrollment funding is not going to go anywhere,” he said. “I hear that conversation a lot and there’s a lot of concern about it, but I’m beginning to believe that it’s unfounded.”

However, he added that another recession may change that conversation.

The discussion at the task force was wide-ranging and covered a number of potential solutions and challenges to the enrollment issue. 

The topic of community college consolidation came up, but the consensus was that any attempt to force consolidation of the state’s 58 community colleges would be a bad idea. 

George Fouts, a task force member who spent more than 40 years in the community college system, said that the General Assembly has contemplated consolidating community colleges numerous times over the years.

“It always failed,” he said. “They attacked it from the wrong angle. They attacked it on the amount of money it was going to save the state.”

Each time, Fouts said the General Assembly discovered that consolidation wouldn’t end up actually saving that much money.

State Board member and enrollment task force chair Scott Shook said that consolidation would probably only work in the event that there were two or more community colleges that actually wanted to join together. If that were the case, he said he would be for it.

“I’ll support you 100 percent to get it done,” he said. “That’s the way it’s got to work.”

There was some discussion of perhaps finding a model that would create an incentive for community colleges to work more closely together. But McGinnis said that there are inherent issues with that, chief of which is the fact that neighboring colleges may be competing for the same students. 

“The current model is set up so that there is a zero-sum game for colleges to compete for the student population,” he said. “As long as students have mobility and portability and are not restricted to where they can go, there is a disincentive to partner with neighboring colleges because you are going after a finite population.”

Another issue that was raised is turnover. There are some colleges that have gone through a number of presidents in a short number of years. That kind of instability can make it hard for colleges to face the challenges of declining enrollment.

“Stability in leadership is important so that there is continuity, the ability to put things into place,” McGinnis said.

And it’s not just president turnover that’s a problem, but other key roles like Chief Financial Officers. There was some discussion of maybe developing some sort of team of experts who could be dispatched to struggling colleges to help get their administration righted. It was also noted that training for community college boards of trustees is an important component. The task force discussed coming up with some sort of trustee training process, perhaps one that involved curriculum and even certification.

“We all get thrown into the jobs in some way shape or form … you all think you may know something, but you get here and you realize you don’t know anything and you’re drinking water out of a firehose,” Shook said.

Another challenge is demographics. There are counties where the population is shrinking in general, or the college-aged population is shrinking. But that is not uniform across the state. Regardless of what a county’s demographics are, Shook said a college has to be able to plan to address enrollment.

“Demographics are an issue … it can’t be an excuse one way or the other,” he said. “You have to have strategies to either overcome or capitalize depending on what your situation is.”

The discussion turned brighter when it came to the recently passed and signed mini-budget that included funding for short-term workforce training programs. This will enable community colleges to receive comparable funding for short-term workforce as they do for curriculum programs.

There is some hope that the parity will lead to a boost in enrollment, though there is a question on whether it will affect enrollment in curriculum programs.

“What’s that going to do to enrollment on the other end?” Shook asked. 

The conversation turned to colleges that persistently have problems over the years. McGinnis said that colleges that can’t seem to meet the challenges of the modern economy are having problems because they are pushing out-of-date programs.

“They’re still worried about making buggy whips,” he said, explaining: “They’re still trying to sell people on programs that aren’t relevant … because there’s somebody that’s teaching there that they don’t want to fire.”

The task force also talked about some of the components that thriving community colleges exhibit, including things like finding alternate sources of funding and establishing good relationships with the business community.

Mark Poarch, president of Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute, said that his school works closely with the local chamber of commerce and implements programs based on what the local business community tells them they need.

 “We can’t do anything in isolation,” he said. 

The task force also talked about some of the things that community colleges have in their favor — such as affordability.

“The overall college expense has gotten out of hand,” Shook said. “It’s too expensive at the university system in a lot of cases.” 

He said that completing the first two years at a community college and then transferring to a four-year college can cut college debt considerably.

“Our cost is significantly less,” Shook said, adding later: “We’ve got a heck of a story to tell for this. We’ve got challenges, but we’ve got a lot of opportunities, too.” 

This meeting was only the second of the task force and the group is far from reaching definitive conclusions. Poarch said he’s heard from some community college leaders who are worried about the goals of the task force. He said the key for the group is going to be making sure people know what they’re doing.

“The overarching focus on this group has to be transparent,” Poarch said. “I think people are anxious and worried about consolidation.”

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.