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What community colleges are up against

Peter Hans, the president of the North Carolina Community College system, kicked off the State Board’s annual planning session by saying that the system has done a lot of good, but that the Board needs to have a solid grasp on reality. 

“We also want to see where we are,” he said. “Room for improvement.”

With that, he introduced Robert Templin, a professor at North Carolina State University’s College of Education and former president for 12 years of Northern Virginia Community College. Templin is also working with the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research, launched by NC State’s College of Education, and he presented the Board with a sobering view of the challenges facing community colleges nationwide and in North Carolina. 

Changing demographics, a shifting economy, reduced public funding, shifting politics, and more are besetting community colleges around the country and will force them to change the way they operate, he said. 

“The issues that are facing America’s community colleges are America’s issues,” he said. 

Community colleges are shifting away from the groups they have traditionally served and will need to be set up to provide skills to the workers industries need, he explained. 

In 25 years, he said the nation will have no majority racial or ethnic group. For the past five years, about 44 percents of the students in North Carolina are not white. These are the future crop of community college students, but Templin said this group is less likely to enroll in college, and if they do enroll, less likely to finish. 

“If we can change that trajectory and get them prepared to go to college, where do you think they will go?” he asked. 

Meanwhile, he said that according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will be 15.6 million new jobs between now and 2022, and about half will require at least some college. In North Carolina, by 2020, 67 percent of job openings will require some college, but as of 2015, only 37 percent of adults had an associate’s degree or higher, he said. He said that industries in North Carolina are relying on shipping in workers from out of state to get the skilled labor they need. That leaves an untapped opportunity for North Carolina workers that community colleges can help with. 

“A long-term strategy is build your own,” he said. 

Along with this trend is another that will impact community colleges. The fastest growing transfer students from community colleges to four-year institutions are career and technical education students. Traditionally, those students finish out their education at community college, but the changing demands of the workforce are increasingly requiring higher levels of education. 

For instance, he said that if you’re hoping to become a supervisor in a large automotive repair shop, you’d better have both skills AND a bachelor’s degree. The notion of community colleges having two different populations — career technical education and transfer students — is old fashioned. 

“But we’re still behaving as though it’s that way,” he said. 

Declining economic mobility offers both opportunities and challenges for community colleges, Templin said. 

The top 10 percent of earners are growing their income while moderate and low-income families are struggling to stay afloat, he said. If you’re in the bottom 10 percent of income earners, your income has declined in the current economy. Workers with a high school diploma and no skills are not going to be competitive in the workplace, but Templin said that’s where community colleges can help. 

“They’re not going to turn to the universities. They’re not going to turn to the industry. They’re going to turn to the community college, if they’re doing the right things,” he said. 

But that means community colleges need to go out and find those people and entice them through the doors. Waiting for those low-skill workers to come to community colleges isn’t going to work, he said. 

Getting these students could help with another problem facing community colleges: declining enrollment. 

Nationally, enrollment in community colleges is down 14 percent since 2010. Between 2010 and 2017, enrollment in North Carolina community colleges has declined slightly less: 12 percent. But that’s still a problem, and it’s going to require community colleges to change the way they operate to address it. 

“Business as usual has got to stop,” he said. “Not for the sake of community colleges. For the sake of our state. For our people.” 

Board members weighed in on some of the issues discussed by Templin, sharing their on-the-ground experience. 

Board member Ernest Pearson said he has worked with companies looking where to locate, and skilled labor is a constant challenge. 

“It always has been that labor availability is the top of the list,” he said. “It is now becoming overwhelming.”

Templin reiterated that North Carolina has the people to fill these positions, but those people just don’t have the knowledge or the skills the companies need. 

Board member Wade Bryan Irwin shared his experience with a young Hispanic man who is a United States citizen and exemplary student. The young man applied to community college online but was shut out because his parents weren’t in the country legally. 

“This child is an American citizen and door after door after door was closed in his face,” he said. 

Ultimately, through the intervention of some of the young man’s supporters, he was able to get into community college and is planning to transfer to a four-year university and become an engineer. But it almost wasn’t so. 

“If it hadn’t have been for a few people, he would have given up,” Irwin said. “He would be mowing yards today.” 

Hans chimed in and said that the community college system is working to remove the barrier that this young man faced getting into community college, but Templin said the challenges faced by the student point to a larger problem: young people who don’t think they have future. 

Just the perception that success is unattainable is enough to dissuade certain minority students from pursuing their future, he said.

“That perception that you can’t get in is even more damaging than the reality of how difficult it is,” Templin said. 

Templin covered many other issues facing community colleges, from the need for better data use, to retiring community college leaders — in 2015, the American Association of Community Colleges reported that almost 50 percent of community college presidents will probably retire by 2020, leaving a wealth of experience and institutional knowledge behind. Since 2015, more than 13 community college presidential vacancies have been announced in North Carolina, he said. 

This dovetails with the five characteristics Templin said successful community colleges have. Number one is strong leadership. Along with that are clear pathways to getting credentials for students, a focus on improving teaching, good use of data, and structures that connect community colleges to the broader community in which they are enmeshed. 

These are traits that all community colleges are going to need to succeed, but it’s going to take the intentional vision of community colleges to make it happen. 

“The choice is ours. There’s nobody forcing us to change the way we do business,” Templin said. “But the consequence of failing to act is horrible.” 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.