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Perspective | A case for community college transfer: A strategy to remain first in the nation in talent and opportunity

Earlier this year, leaders from across the state gathered to gauge progress toward our myFutureNC vision. Public and private institutional leaders, policymakers, and employers are all working to ensure two million adults across North Carolina have a postsecondary credential by the end of the decade. Four years in, we’re falling behind our goal. We can make headway by increasing community college transfer. 

At the Belk Center, we’re committed to expanding higher education pathways for community college transfers across the Great 58. Over the next two months, we’ll lay out a four-part series that reveals transfer’s potential as an economic development strategy, the challenges and barriers standing in the way, and actionable strategies. By building on what we have already accomplished for transfer, we can advance economic mobility for students and their families, ensure North Carolina remains first in the nation for business and opportunity, and reach the state’s 2030 attainment goal.

VinFast. Wolfspeed. Macy’s. Toyota Motor. Glen Raven. They are just a few of the dozens of companies looking to build or expand their workforce across North Carolina in the coming years. 

Exceptional institutions of higher education are poised to supply the talent. Each year, thousands of individuals graduate from North Carolina community colleges with career-ready credentials, equipped with the skills to thrive in competitive roles. 

Our state is on a promising economic trajectory. But we must not ignore real challenges ahead. 

Our education system cannot keep up with the demand for talent. Over the next decade, North Carolina will add more than 88,000 high-wage jobs in high-paying occupations that typically require a bachelor’s degree across the state — including in our rural communities. As it stands now, many industries are struggling to fill vacancies in the aftermath of COVID. 

And time alone is not going to fix it.

Postsecondary institutions statewide must increase the pipeline of talent that enters to and through their doors, particularly in the eastern, western, and Piedmont regions. How? Community colleges and four-year institutions band together to ensure more individuals seamlessly move from community colleges to baccalaureate-granting institutions, especially those who might forgo higher education altogether. 

A decade-long commitment to transfer

Fortunately, we can build on nearly 10 years of efforts to strengthen transfer. In 2014, North Carolina institutions launched the Comprehensive Articulation Agreement (CAA), a statewide compact to ensure students earn relevant credits and saving students time and money. Our research at the Belk Center found that after CAA revisions, transfer students were between 5% and 13% more likely to complete their bachelor’s degrees. Students also transferring with an AA or AS degree had far fewer excess credits. These amount to squandered time and money. 

In just the past year, more community colleges and four-year institutions have come together to build clear transfer pathways to key industries. Fayetteville Technical Community College and Richmond Community College partnered earlier this year to offer specialized training programs in respiratory therapy, electric utility, and speech language pathology; career pathways that are unavailable in their communities. Elsewhere in the state, Bladen Community College and the University of Mount Olive recently launched a 2+2 program centered on agri-business. Students earn their degrees in the same amount of time as their peers who started at Mt. Olive.

While a great start, there’s still more to be done. 

After all, there are transfer-ready students we still aren’t reaching. The Aspen Institute College Excellence Program found that NCCCS produced 15,000 AA/AS graduates last year. Only 5,000 AA/AS completers transferred to the UNC System — and 2,000 entered our independent colleges. We could more than double the number of students who transfer and complete a bachelor’s degree each year with a more efficient transfer process. These institutions aren’t competing for enrollments; they are competing against disengagement with postsecondary education.

Better together: Advancing a shared commitment to transfer

The talent is there. We need to ensure they can transfer and access clear, affordable, and high-wage pathways to bachelor’s degrees. We must also make sure those pathways serve the needs of our individual communities and state. Why? 

Let’s think about transfer pathways as career pathways. The difference between an associate and bachelor’s degree can, in some cases, be the difference between an individual earning a living wage or not. In 2022, there were 4,584,307 total jobs in the state of North Carolina, with a median annual income of $39,695. Of those, 1,470,479 were “highest-wage jobs” that have median annual earnings at or above $49,525 — the living wage for an individual in a family with two working adults and two children. We know that nearly 60% of entry-level roles in those highest-wage jobs in North Carolina require a bachelor’s degree.

So how do we get community college degree earners to transfer to baccalaureate-granting institutions? What’s keeping them from doing so? Who is being left out of the transfer process — and why? 

Our team at the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research — along with leading state and national organizations and agencies — will answer these questions throughout this series.

Audrey J. Jaeger

Audrey J. Jaeger, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research.