Point of View

Recognizing the crucial role of the NC community college teacher

March 5, 2014 


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With more than 820,000 students, North Carolina’s community colleges offer North Carolinians from all walks of life and from all economic backgrounds a chance to succeed – succeed in education, succeed in careers, succeed in life and succeed as members of their communities.

Behind nearly every success, there is a faculty member who went beyond, who took extra time, who spent his own money or who helped students dig deep to find their passion, their dignity and a pathway to the future. It is on their behalf that I ask for your advocacy and support.

The number of community college instructors is large – tens of thousands both full- and part-time – and their effect across our state is tremendous. They are driving our economic recovery and teach approximately 50 percent of all the undergraduate college students in our state, as well as tens of thousands of high school students through Early College and dual-enrollment programs. They are a gateway to higher education and careers to all, but especially to those from working class, low-income and first-generation-college families.

Like their colleagues in public schools, North Carolina community college faculty members are among the lowest-paid in the nation, ranking 41st in overall average pay. That’s an amount that is 30 percent below national averages and 10 percent lower than community college instructors in other Southern states. Community college faculty members, on average, make only $1,330 more than the average for their N.C. public school teaching colleagues. If they were ranked nationally against K-12 average salary rankings, N.C. community college faculty would be 42nd on the list.

But the issue at hand is about much more than where they rank on a salary scale. It is the transformational effect they have on students and communities.

The welding instructor whose students work around the world but bring their sometimes six-figure incomes back to Western North Carolina and care so deeply about their instructor that at least one called him in the midst of a firefight in Afghanistan. The nursing instructor who, on her own dime, earned a second master’s degree because it would help her college’s program and the standing of her students. It didn’t improve her paycheck at all. And the instructor in a short-term training course who took a once-homeless student under her wing to make sure that student got a second look from a local employer, resulting in the student getting a good-paying job and moving toward financial independence.

Stories of sacrifice and impact are not unusual for our community college teachers. Why? Because their students are neighbors, church mates, friends and acquaintances on the little league ball fields, in the grocery stores and at PTA meetings. Our faculty are part of the community, and, as a result, sacrifices for their communities and their students are not uncommon.

In the midst of the 28 percent enrollment increases and a 21 percent decline in state per-student funding, our faculty also found the heart and will to tackle a systemwide focus to dramatically improve student success. They took on and led a statewide challenge to move more students to graduation by restructuring courses delivered to high school students and completely redesigning developmental education, math and technical education programs – changes that have moved students closer to graduation and led to millions in documented savings of taxpayer resources.

Their four-year work on these and other statewide student success initiatives has been recognized nationally. The Brookings Institution and Rockefeller Foundation identified these efforts as one of 10 State and Metropolitan Innovations to Watch in 2012, and they were highlighted as one of the nation’s leading innovations in post-secondary education before a recent hearing of the U.S. Senate Higher Education, Labor and Pension Committee.

Our faculty’s results and impact clearly demonstrate that their commitment to their communities and students is not driven by money. But as North Carolina leaders rightly turn attention to the value of teachers, the contributions and sacrifices of vital community college teachers must not go unnoticed and unrewarded. They have provided the results and the savings. Now they also deserve our respect and increased compensation that recognizes their total contributions to our state.

Dr. Scott Ralls is president of N.C. Community College System.

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