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It’s time to rethink our Residency Determination Service

First, I want to thank EdNC for its work on behalf of education and particularly its interest in North Carolina’s community colleges. They truly are one of our state’s greatest assets and economic engines. Also, I want to thank EdNC for being one of the sponsors for the recent Emerging Issues Forum where the topic was “Reconnecting Communities.”  In those presentations, there was an emphasis on civil discourse and a presentation from two legislators, one a democratic senator and one a republican house member, on how things can be accomplished in a bipartisan way when the issue constitutes “common ground.”

As I listened to the presentation, I could not help but think that our community colleges are “common ground” and that the effort to help them help our people should draw strong support from anyone, regardless of party or ideology. Statistics show that our community colleges contribute $19.6 billion to the state’s economy each year. By improving life through learning, people receive credentials that allow them to earn more, and statistics show that they are then more likely to be able to provide for their families; they are more likely to have better health and live longer; and they are less likely to get in trouble and be a burden on society.  Yet, for the last several years, the community colleges have seen cuts to the money that they need to educate students and close the skills gap. This might have been understandable during the Great Recession, but since that time there have been significant surpluses and still, these cuts persist.

Our community colleges are some of the most affordable, accessible, and excellent in the nation. Everyone in North Carolina is essentially within 30 miles of a community college campus. With college affordability being a huge issue for students across the nation, our state keeps debt low by our community colleges having one of the lowest tuition costs.

Our instruction is excellent. Instructors in the college transfer programs in Arts and Sciences have their master’s or doctorate and are professional educators. Many four-year schools use graduate students, who are working on those degrees, to teach those early courses, and they are not going to be professional educators.

At a time when closing the skills gap is so in focus, our community colleges provide degree programs, certificates, and diplomas in the applied sciences of welding, plumbing, machining, robotics, mechatronics, construction trades, advanced manufacturing, and many more. We educate and train over 700,000 North Carolina students each year in our curriculum and continuing education courses.  In doing so, we make their lives better, the economy better, and close the skills gap, providing more qualified workers to business and industry.

At our community colleges, we are proud to be an open door. Regardless of past performance, we accept anyone. We don’t just throw them into deep water, however. If diagnostics show they are not ready for college courses, we remediate and get them ready to perform. As was said when the system was created, “We will take anyone from wherever they are, and we will take them as far as they want to go.”

We are a system that meets the challenge of change. Many students are facing the challenges of child care, adult care, transportation, multiple jobs, and the list goes on. Our colleges are flexible enough to help them overcome those obstacles.

As a state, North Carolina has faced, and is still facing, the challenge of change of a transitioning economy. No longer do textiles, tobacco, and furniture dominate the economy as they once did. New industries are being formed, and artificial intelligence is playing a larger role. Previously, machines helped people to do their job, and today, people often help machines do the job. The work our community colleges do is important, and they should be recognized and properly funded for the good and essential job they do.

With this said, we must also find common ground on the premise that we should remove all barriers for students to access this instruction. Yet, our colleges are asked to be a police force for residency determination, the RDS system, which is mandated by law.

Before RDS, I understand the colleges asked three questions about residency: (1) Are you a resident of North Carolina?; (2) Have you lived in North Carolina 12 continuous months?; (3) Did you graduate from a North Carolina high school? Now, RDS requires a lengthy process and proof of residency by added documentation. Rather than three questions, you are now first confronted with “The 10 Things to Know Before You Start RDS.”

Then, you must go through the questionnaire. If you are a student who is estranged from your parents due to parental incarceration, drug addiction, or other causes; if you are a student who lives on the border in North Carolina, but has a South Carolina (or another border state’s) address; if you are in the military and based in North Carolina; if you are a student who was adopted, but estranged and now looking for your natural parents; or if you are a student who fits a myriad of other examples, you will have more problems than most.

While RDS is a burden for four-year schools, they at least have the luxury of determining who they will offer admittance in the spring, thereby sending rejection letters to those who don’t qualify. They then work with those they will admit over the next few months to get the necessary documentation and information to meet the RDS requirements.

Contrast that to the open door policy of the community colleges, which often take the student who has an epiphany at the last minute that they are going to take the plunge and go back to school. For example, think of Bill who comes off the job and goes to lunch at the local café and the waitress who serves him. Both become inspired to return to school and in a moment of courage go to the local community college to enroll. By the way, these are people who do not have a credential beyond high school and exist in that skills gap which gets so much discussion.

They go to the community college in the last week of registration and sit down at a computer to complete the RDS inquisition. They get only so far and realize they can’t follow all of the questions. They take it as a “sign from God” that they were never to do this in the first place, and they leave and return home. Under this scenario, their lives are diminished for not taking that opportunity and the fabric of North Carolina is diminished at the same time.

Statistics are showing that about six percent of those applying turn away from the process because of this red tape, this barrier. That is not to say that residency determination is not important. It is probably a criminal violation now to intentionally misrepresent residency to defraud the state, and if necessary, that law can be clarified further. However, it should not be the community colleges that act as the police force. The state is spending millions on RDS currently, and it is a solution looking for a problem. That money could be used to better promote the opportunities that exist at our community colleges.

In conclusion, I return to the need for civil discourse, the need for our community colleges to become that common ground, and the need that they be fully funded. I also hope there will be common ground regarding RDS and that it will be determined that it be removed and return to the prior system of identifying residency, or at least accept the proposal by the State Board and the Presidents’ Association to simplify what can be an onerous process. If this is done, perhaps the money now spent on RDS can be used to promote what I believe to be the most accessible, affordable, and excellent community colleges in the nation. 

Walter Dalton

Since 2013, Walter Dalton has served as President of Isothermal Community College where he has led an aggressive building program and is working with the Isothermal team to develop initiatives to help the community meet the “challenge of change” in a transitioning economy. In 2016, Isothermal Community College, in partnership with Tryon International Equestrian Center, won the System’s Distinguished Partners in Excellence Award and in 2015 ICC was one of ten schools selected as a finalist for the national Bellwether Award for its partnership with Western Carolina University on certain specialized articulations.

Immediately prior to his work at Isothermal Community College, Dalton served on the faculty at Gardner Webb University. Dalton served twelve years in the NC Senate where he was a chair of the Education Committee and later a Budget Chair. He was author of the Innovative Education Act which laid the foundation for creating early colleges throughout NC and in 2008, he was elected Lt. Governor and thereafter he chaired the “Jobs Commission” (Joining Our Business and Schools Act). He also served on the NC Board of Education, the NC Community College Board, and the NC Economic Development Board as well, as the Southern Regional Education Board and the Board of the NC Center for Public Policy Research. Dalton is a graduate of UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and earned his Juris Doctorate degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He thereafter practiced law for over thirty years. He is married to Lucille Hodge Dalton, a former teacher. They have two children and two grandchildren and live in Rutherfordton, North Carolina.