Gov. McCrory says community colleges are key to state's economic recovery

jstancill@newsobserver.comAugust 16, 2013 

  • Community college system

    North Carolina’s community college system, celebrating its 50th year is the third largest in the nation. It’s made up of 58 community colleges across the state. Though the Community College System board has broad oversight for the system, individual community colleges have their own local boards of trustees.

— Gov. Pat McCrory advocated a new way of funding community colleges Friday, based not on numbers of students but on training programs that yield the best job outcomes.

In a speech to the N.C. Community College System board, McCrory said North Carolina’s 58 community colleges are key to the state’s economic recovery and its ability to attract good-paying jobs.

The governor said he wants to move ahead with new ways of budgeting that are not based on enrollment but rather on higher funding for the higher cost technical and health programs that lead to more robust employment. He asked the system leaders for their ideas for how to do it.

“What I want to do is set up a system where we reward you for giving those courses in which people actually get jobs,” he said. “The dilemma we have is some of those courses are your most expensive courses and our funding is based primarily on how many people you have in your seats.”

The community college system took an overall $16 million cut, or 1.6 percent, in the budget that passed the legislature and recently was signed by McCrory. Though the system received an increase of $10 million for instructional equipment, funding for enrollment dropped.

In 2013-14, the system had 241,776 full time equivalent students, a decline of 2.5 percent from 2012-13. The previous year, enrollment had declined 1.2 percent after several years of gangbuster growth during the recession. In 2010-11, the number of community college students jumped by 12.6 percent across the system.

“Now that surge has dropped, and that impacted your funding,” McCrory said. “I’m not sure that’s right. I’m being honest with you, the budget process has got to be different than what it is now.”

Wake Tech booming

While some campuses have experienced a decline, others are bursting at the seams. Wake Technical Community College, for example, saw a record 21,000 students at its first day of classes Friday. The college is about to undertake $200 million in construction approved by voters in a bond referendum last year. At the relatively new Northern Wake campus, that means three new classroom buildings and a parking deck to handle the flood of students.

“Community colleges, and certainly Wake Tech in this market, have a competitive advantage in price and quality,” said Wake Tech President Stephen Scott, explaining the post-recession growth.

Scott said he appreciated McCrory’s recognition that some more costly programs need more funding.

But, Scott added: “Our per-student funding has dropped and it continues to drop. ... I think it’s a good idea but if it’s done at expense of other programs, then it makes it difficult to operate. All community colleges are taking money from their lower-cost programs and moving it in to support their higher-cost programs. That’s what everyone is doing.”

The Wake Tech president also mentioned several programs that have been cut altogether in recent years. This year, he said, it was free community college courses to senior citizens. That will affect about 1,000 people in Wake County, he said.

In public speeches since he signed the budget, McCrory has defended the Republicans’ spending plan for education. A proponent of community colleges, McCrory said he wanted to do more to boost technical training, including a better way of recruiting high school students to fields such as welding, plumbing, bricklaying and other trades that can pay good salaries.

‘Pretty good news’

He cited two recent examples of a community college’s role in luring new business to the state.

One, he said, was the announcement this week by gunmaker Sturm, Ruger & Co. that it would open a new factory in Rockingham County, employing more than 450 people. McCrory said the company’s CEO had told him he considered two other locations. To test the waters, he took out a job ad to gauge community response. Rockingham job seekers beat the competitors, McCrory said, and half of the respondents to the ad came from Rockingham Community College.

“That’s pretty good news right there,” the governor said.

He pointed out another recent case where a steel fabricator expanded in Mt. Airy and applauded Surry Community College for taking job training to the workers.

“You are part of North Carolina’s economic recovery,” McCrory told community college officials in Raleigh. “You have to be at the leadership table.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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