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Perspective | What we have learned about North Carolina community colleges by hitting the road

I started my career rooted in a 130-year-old retail company in the Southeast. The experience of owning a family business and my business background meant that living and dying by data and solving for human talent pipeline needs by being innovative in a socially evolving ecosystem was just in my DNA. In my lifetime, we witnessed Made in America and the pride it produced, then we saw companies move production overseas and experienced firsthand the impact that technology is having on the retail industry. We watched these contrasting times play out in the 17 states in which Belk operated. We understood the talent gap was real.

The leaders of the business worked hard to come up with innovative strategies for buying, sales, and store support plans using data and experience as their guide. Often, their decisions were the right ones, but I also learned that it was critical to travel to communities and talk to our employees to see if decisions made at the corporate level had translated down to individual stores. Local context was so important!

This lesson holds true today in our work at the John M. Belk Endowment. As we think about making investments in education across North Carolina, we realize our grant partnerships will only be as strong as our understanding of the people and places they’re intended to serve. Last year, we knew we wanted to double down on one of our state’s most valuable assets — its 58 community colleges. We also knew we had a lot to learn. So, in partnership with our friends at EducationNC, we hit the road.

When I wrote for EdNC one year ago, we had visited 10 community colleges. Today, we’ve visited almost half of the 58. Campus after campus, our minds have been blown by what we’ve learned from leaders, faculty, and students. We’ve seen firsthand the role that community colleges play in educating and upskilling hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians of all ages every year — and the impact this is having on our workforce and economy.

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 and retain businesses. They map their instructional offerings to community opportunities like the marine technology curriculum offered at Cape Fear, the cyber security program at Forsyth Tech, the aviation campus at Guilford Tech, the brewing program at A-B Tech, the heavy equipment operations program at Stanly CC… the list goes on! Each of the 58 colleges have these stories, and we look forward to hearing (and telling) more of them.

As our state’s economy and jobs have changed, the value and nimbleness of our community colleges has not. Regardless of their geographic location — in rural and urban areas alike — they remain the heartbeat of their communities and the economic engines of our state.

I’d like to share with you three of the most important things we’ve learned on our visits so far.

Leadership matters.

Setting new, existing, and future leaders up for success is critical to our system, its colleges, and the students they serve. Leadership transitions are especially important to get right, and they’re happening more frequently than ever before. Since we started our visits, 17 presidents have retired, including those at Nash, Guilford Tech, Forsyth Tech, A-B Tech, and more. We’ve also seen new presidents take the helm at this crucial moment.

We’re excited that the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research at NC State is doubling down on the support we provide to those who lead (and aspire to lead) community colleges. The Belk Center is working with the system office, state associations, and national partners like Achieving the Dream and the Aspen Institute to develop best-in-class programs and supports for new and existing community college presidents and trustees. At the same time, NC State is redesigning its doctoral program in community college leadership to focus on developing transformational community college leaders who have the tools and vision needed to lead community colleges to higher levels of success.

Visibility matters.

Our 58 community colleges shouldn’t be the best kept secret in North Carolina. Telling the story of our community colleges and promoting the high-demand, high-paying career opportunities for which they prepare students of all ages is key to their continued success. It goes beyond getting information into the hands of potential students — it’s also critical to engage parents, educators, community members, and business leaders in these conversations so that they are well-informed about what their local community colleges have to offer.

In the last year, we’ve seen some exciting examples of how community college stories are starting to get the attention and airtime they deserve. EdNC has been doing great work to shine a light on the incredible things happening across the system and the state. And, in July, the system launched a statewide marketing campaign to raise awareness of the opportunities the 58 colleges offer. For the next several months — and in communities across North Carolina — messages about how community colleges get students hired will be front and center on billboards, television, radio, print, and social media.

Focus on Forsyth is another great example of how to increase the visibility of our community colleges and all they have to offer. Forsyth Tech President Janet Spriggs worked with local superintendents and high schools in Forsyth and Stokes counties to bring undecided seniors (and school counselors) to campus before they graduated and give them a chance to explore and learn more about what the college is all about.

Collaboration matters.

Community colleges exemplify what it means to work well with others. From teaming up with other education systems to drive student success to connecting with local businesses to design training and skill development programs to meet their workforce needs, community colleges thrive on creating and sustaining strong partnerships with others. Some of the most exciting examples of collaboration we’ve seen during our travels across the state involve partnerships that mobilize all sectors of the community — K-12 and higher education institutions, business/industry, nonprofits, local workforce boards or chambers of commerce, local government, the list goes on.

We visited McDowell Tech and heard from their K-12 superintendent and McDowell Tech President John Gossett about the ways they are focused on unique CTE collaborations to decrease the dropout rate. We’ve also been proud to see the work of K-64 flourish as they work to build a talent pipeline in Catawba County that can compete on a global stage.

These three lessons — the importance of investing in leadership, increasing visibility, and encouraging cross-sector collaboration — are also critically important to the success of statewide efforts like myFutureNC, which is working to fill our state’s talent gap by ensuring that 2 million North Carolinians between the ages of 25 and 44 complete a high-quality postsecondary degree or credential by 2030.

We’ve covered a lot of ground in the last year, but there is so much more to learn and discover — we’ll be hitting the road again soon and look forward to all that we’ll see, hear, and experience in the year ahead. Please join us!

Editor’s note: The John M. Belk Endowment supports the work of EducationNC.

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.