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North Carolina’s community colleges are an amazing resource, and my first few months as president of the system have only reinforced my optimistic beliefs about our future.

Since the beginning of May, I’ve visited 20 of our 58 community colleges and seen what they are doing to prepare North Carolinians for careers and life. At every stop, I’ve talked with dedicated presidents, faculty, and staff. They take a deep interest in our students and the quality of instruction provided.

I’ve met inspiring students like Erica Mays, who overcame – with the help of Piedmont Community College’s foundation – unexpected financial hardships to earn her nursing degree this spring. Many students are of modest means and often hail from first generation college-going families. They’re committed to achieving their goals, and the colleges are dedicated to helping students succeed.

I’m not the only one who has noticed how good our colleges are. SmartAsset, a personal-finance website, recently ranked nine North Carolina community colleges among the top 25 nationally – and six of them were in the top 10. Our colleges offer high-quality education at a very reasonable cost. They also have low student-to-faculty ratios and provide tremendous student services.

We are building on our strong relationships with the K-12 schools, the UNC System, and private colleges and universities. We also benefit from partnerships with philanthropic organizations, such as the Belk Endowment, the Gates Foundation, and Golden LEAF. These leaders recognize that our colleges are very good at understanding local communities and what makes them unique.

There’s no stronger partner for us than the business community. Community colleges are essential to moving North Carolina’s economy forward. It is a great state for business, and our network of community colleges is a big reason why. Our economic development team works with public and private-sector partners every day to promote the state and provide customized job training.

North Carolina’s community colleges have momentum, and we are building on it. Colleges are upgrading their facilities with funds from local and state bond packages. We’re working with Governor Cooper on $7 million in “Finish Line” grants to help students with financial emergencies that come up when they are so close to finishing their studies.

And the General Assembly provided the system with an additional $15 million in this year’s budget to support short-term workforce training programs so we can create opportunities for more North Carolinians. That investment will yield dividends across the state.

We should measure success not by the dollars spent, but by the lives changed.

Last month, I met Zach Cleghorn, a former Marine who, partly because of his education at Pitt Community College, went from living in his car to earning a master’s degree. He is now applying to doctoral programs.

Zach said, “Pitt Community College was the catalyst for a life-changing journey.”

That’s what North Carolina’s community colleges do. They change lives.

Peter Hans

Peter Hans became the ninth president of the North Carolina Community College System on May 1, 2018, bringing decades of leadership experience in higher education policy and governance to the position. Hans has been a leader on North Carolina’s two governing boards for higher education. He served six years on the State Board of Community Colleges and 12 on the University of North Carolina Board of Governors.