So, is Wake Tech, the community college that now is North Carolinas largest, fulfilling the mission of that noble system in reaching out to all sorts of students, providing opportunities for those whose goal is a four-year college education and for those seeking associate degrees, and training people who want to gain new skills for a changing job market?
The answer on all counts is an emphatic, Yes. And that should be the answer of Wake County voters come November, when theyll be asked to approve a $200 million bond issue to help the campus keep up with demand from more and more students, and the needs for space and instruction that such demand brings.
More than 20,000 students now are enrolled. And there are more than 65,000 people taking at least one course at a Wake Tech location. Thats exactly the role that the late Terry Sanford, governor and champion of the community college system, had in mind.
At Wake Tech, which now boasts a large northern Wake campus off Louisburg Road, those 20,000-plus students are looking at associate degrees, and many will try to earn four-year degrees from one of the states public institutions, which have cooperative arrangements with community colleges.
Its true that one boost to Wake Tech and other community colleges is an influx of students who have either lost their jobs because of the economic downturn or have seen their jobs edged out by technological changes or a lack of demand.
Consider one new Wake Tech student in her mid-20s who has a degree from UNC-Greensboro. But she found her English degree was not as marketable in the current economy. So shes now training in medical technology. I hear, at least, that theres a strong market for it, she said.
Her story is of course not uncommon.
And she is a good student. Thats typical of those who go back to school for any reason after a period of being out, whether that period is six months or 10 years. These students are motivated toward an end goal. They are focused. They are in school to study, gain skills and put those skills to use.
The technical and community colleges also typically have lots of practical experience among faculty members. And these faculty members often find their students eager to learn and easier to teach.
As North Carolinas textile industry, and other manufacturing industries, started to fade a number of years ago, it became a goal of political leaders to recruit new industry. And what did new industry need more than anything? Skilled workers who could walk in the door, walk up to a piece of machinery and make it work. That applies whether the machinery is part of low-tech or high-tech manufacturing.
But Wake Tech recognizes it is more than a job-training institution. It provides also a host of courses in English and liberal arts and the sciences designed to motivate students toward that associate degree and then on to a four-year university to finish up. Its a great and lower-cost route for many students who may need to stay close to home (perhaps theyre married with children) or cannot afford the ever-increasing tuition at public and private universities.
Community colleges return to us many times the publics faith and money that supports them and that (in the case of the bond issue) allows them to meet demands. Lives change, and they are changing all around us, for the better. If that does not make a governors dream come alive, nothing will.