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Lessons learned on the road to our community’s colleges

Dr. Dallas Herring, known for his role in creating the North Carolina Community College System, once said that community colleges should “…take people from where they are, as far as they can go.”

Today, North Carolina’s community college system is carrying out Dr. Herring’s vision of making education accessible to all by elevating over 700,000 North Carolinians each year and preparing them for the workforce we need today, tomorrow, and in the future.

The John M. Belk Endowment is a relatively new family foundation that is committed to a similar mission: transforming postsecondary educational opportunities to meet our state’s evolving workforce needs. Our work is grounded in our family values and Belk, Inc.’s 130-year business history. A critical piece of the company’s core identity has been how deeply involved each of the Belk stores have become in the nearly 300 diverse communities across the Southeast that they call home. Our team hopes to reflect this same deeply rooted approach in our grantmaking across North Carolina.

In partnership with EducationNC, we have embarked on a community college listening tour to visit each campus, meet with leaders and students, and better understand the role that community colleges are playing across North Carolina. Ten campuses in, we are continually impressed by the diverse role each institution is playing in serving their local community.

If North Carolina wants to remain competitive into the 21st century, community colleges must be at the heart of our state’s strategy to educate and upskill our workforce.

In recent years, we’ve done a great job of attracting educated people to our state, but are we doing enough to invest in and grow our own talent?

Community colleges are a great asset when it comes to developing a statewide talent pipeline.

These 58 institutions are home to strong examples of collaboration in education – robust partnerships with local businesses, K-12 systems, and other postsecondary institutions are core to their being. The community colleges are singularly positioned to respond to evolving industry and community needs. The colleges are positioned to propel talent and learners of all ages through the educational continuum towards ongoing career success. 

I wanted to share some of the lessons that we have gained during our recent visits.

Leadership matters.

We are inspired by the vision of leaders across the system. We feel lucky to have Peter, Jennifer, Lisa, and others leading the charge at the system office. We have been so impressed by the presidents of individual institutions, too. We realize it’s critical to lift up these leaders and equip them with the tools and resources they need to translate their vision into reality.

Faculty and staff matter.

We’ve been moved by the impact that passionate educators have on the student experience. Recruiting and retaining excellent educators is critical but can be a major challenge, especially given that teaching at a community college can often mean a reduction in pay versus what someone would receive if they stayed in their respective industries full-time. We have heard this in each nursing program we have visited.

Students matter.

The student experience is at the heart of everything a successful community college does. How can we best serve our students? How do we meet their needs? There is a need to correct society’s perception of who community college students are and what the stressors of their lives are. We are continually inspired by our friend Marbeth Holmes at Nash Community College who is a leader in creating wraparound services for students. We were recently impressed by the work Catawba Valley Community College President Garrett Hinshaw and his team have undertaken to launch a beautiful student services center with a new manufacturing and engineering facility soon to come.

Community roots are what set community colleges apart.

Community colleges might be better described as “our community’s college” given their vital role. They meet local and regional economic development needs in real time, particularly as local governments work to recruit businesses. They map their instructional offerings to community opportunities ranging from the equine program at Martin Community College to the brewing curriculum we toured at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. Each of the 58 colleges have these stories and we look forward to hearing them.

North Carolina Community Colleges play an important role in shaping the future of our state. They are the engines for economic development and also a pathway for economic mobility for so many of their students.

Despite the value they provide to our students, communities, and our state, they are too often undervalued, underfunded, and even underappreciated.

We’ve heard often that our community colleges are the state’s best kept secret, and we agree, but we want to make sure that every North Carolinian understands the valuable role they play in making sure our state wins the talent war and remains competitive in our global, connected economy.

After each visit, our team has walked away filled with hope for our future workforce and an urgency to share what we’re learning with others. We hope to shine a spotlight on the incredible things happening across our state’s community colleges and we believe that is essential to our mission.

On a personal note, we want to thank each and every community college for your work on behalf of our state, our students, and our future. We also want to extend our appreciation to all who support them.

Our tours will continue… stay tuned!

MC Belk Pilon

MC Belk Pilon is board chair of the John M. Belk Endowment, where she and her team are committed to increasing access to and completion of postsecondary education in order to give all citizens the chance at long-term, family-sustaining careers.