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Looking back to look forward: Exploring the future of community colleges

“We’re not training enough people to fill the jobs of the twenty-first century. There is a skills gap. And if we don’t adjust quickly and if we don’t do smart things with the taxpayers’ money, if we don’t properly use our community colleges, we’re going to have a shortage of skilled workers in the decades to come.”

Sound familiar? Those are the words of George W. Bush, speaking at Central Piedmont Community College in 2004. These words still ring true today.

Much has changed since 2004,  yet the challenges facing North Carolina’s workforce remain: too few North Carolinians are graduating with postsecondary degrees to fill the state’s growing demand for highly-skilled workers.

Georgetown Public Policy Institute’s Center on Education and the Workforce projected that by 2020, “65 percent of all jobs will require postsecondary education and training, up from 28 percent in 1973.” However, as of 2016, only 47 percent of North Carolina adults ages 25-64 years old hold a postsecondary credential with significant gaps by race and ethnicity.

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John M. Belk Endowment and Carolina Demography.

Two new Education Trust briefs highlight the pervasive racial and ethnic gaps in degree attainment in the United States and North Carolina. While blacks and Latinos have made gains in degree attainment over the past two decades, those gains have not been enough to close the attainment gap. In 2016, just 30.2 percent of black Americans and 24.5 percent of Latino Americans ages 25 to 34 had a postsecondary degree compared to 51 percent of white Americans.

In North Carolina, 18.8 percent of Latinos had a postsecondary degree, ranking the state 34th in the nation. For black attainment, North Carolina is ranked 19th with 30.5 percent of black North Carolinians attaining a postsecondary degree. While North Carolina’s black attainment rate increased 10.5 percentage points since 2000, the black-white attainment gap increased 0.6 percentage points over the same time period.

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The Education Trust
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The Education Trust

These gaps highlight the challenge ahead for North Carolina’s community colleges and universities.  Andrew H. Nichols, Ph.D., Ed Trust’s senior director of higher education research and data analytics and co-author of the briefs, stated in a press release:

“If state leaders are serious about racial equity and reaching their goals to increase the number of college-educated residents in their states, they need to be honest about what their data are telling them about Black, Latino, and other racial or ethnic groups. In many cases, states will not improve racial equity and reach their degree attainment goals by simply focusing on overall rates and ignoring the large racial gaps that exist.”

The Center’s May 2008 issue of Insight focused on the future of community colleges, identifying many of the current challenges faced by the community college system. Scott Ralls’ report, “Facing Brutal Facts: N.C. Community Colleges in the New Economic Landscape,” discussed the rise of nontraditional students along with the vanishing of black male students.

Today, with the support of the John M. Belk Endowment, EducationNC will build on the Center’s work and explore the many challenges and opportunities in North Carolina’s community college system.

Understanding where we have come from helps us better understand where we are going, so take some time and dive back into the Center’s 2008 Insight. To see where we’re going, check out North Carolina Community Colleges’ 2018-2022 strategic plan, “Putting Education to Work.” We hope you will join with us in this exciting new chapter.

Molly Osborne Urquhart

Molly Osborne is the vice president and director of operations for EducationNC.