Close kin

It's fine to seek efficiencies in community colleges, but consolidation would be a mixed blessing.

July 17, 2011 

It should come as no surprise to state lawmakers that a report they commissioned on ways to find efficiency in the state community college system might reap a whirlwind. The 58 schools, whose mission ranges from preparing students for four-year college programs to training workers in their 50s who seek new skills to help them overcome layoffs, engender in the communities they serve a fierce loyalty.

And they are more, in those communities, than classroom buildings. Individual presidents typically are community leaders. Those who serve local boards use that experience to hone their own leadership skills. The colleges become cultural centers for broad cross-sections of people who live nearby.

A close, personal loyalty and affection for the colleges develops over the years. And this is apart from the academic contribution the community colleges make to the "big picture" of North Carolina's higher education landscape. In a given area, particularly one without a public university or even a private one, residents of nearby towns will inevitably have someone in a family, or maybe several people, enrolled in a program related to the community college.

Ideas for change

So what's this notion that in the name of efficiency, some of the smaller schools should be consolidated with the larger ones? That's a recommendation from a report generated through the General Assembly's Program Evaluation Division. The report, which was released last month, says the smaller colleges, ones with 3,000 students or fewer, are less efficient in terms of expenses and could be merged with other schools, saving money on administrators and oversight.

On its face, the argument is not preposterous, in a time when state spending is under severe pressure and it's important to identify areas for savings. Yet there is a potential for harm that should give decision-makers pause.

Part of that has to do with the expense and trouble of accomplishing the consolidations, which would involve 22 colleges and result in 15 mergers.

Scott Ralls, president of the system, says that from his viewpoint the idea's a bad one because carrying it out would, if everything worked perfectly, save only about $5 million a year, which amounts to less than half of 1 percent of the community colleges' $1.3 billion annual budget. That's not a lot of money, relatively speaking, to put the system through quite a gymnastic contortion.

That's an even better argument if one considers the expense of carrying out the mergers, and the outcome, frankly, would be uncertain.

The other factors

Ralls makes another point that's important as well. "Community colleges," he says, "are much more than places where classes take place. They're the hubs of leadership; they're the beacons of economic hope, and they are the catalyst for things happening in many communities where they don't see a lot of positive things happening."

He and others, who of course have an intense professional commitment to preserving the system's strengths as they see them, question whether a $5 million saving is worth perhaps putting those strengths at risk. It is a valid question.

It's fair to generate discussion about changing things, even big things. Efficiencies in the state's public university system, for example, are discussed from time to time in terms of whether there are duplicative programs or too many administrators. Even such discussions can promote positive changes. For example: the community college report suggests a more centralized purchasing system, which is not a bad idea.

And if college administrators examine proximity to other schools and factors that might favor mergers, the world would not end. But even a smaller college can contribute greatly to a community. North Carolinians who have driven any distances in their state can recall going for miles through rural areas and then coming upon a community college set back from the highway, the wheel hub of a county, or a region.

This is a value worth considering as change is pondered.

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