Challenges, successes of the NC Community College System

Posted by Burgetta Eplin Wheeler on March 28, 2014 

Scott Ralls, president of the N.C. Community College System, visited with the editorial board this week to talk about challenges and successes and what the system of 58 colleges needs from the legislature this session. Here are my notes. They are NOT verbatim.

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Scott Ralls: The community college system trains 68 percent of the nurses in North Carolina. Industrial maintenance, welding, machining, bio tech, those are areas that for us are where the gap (in finding instructors) is, also the place where we face the greatest challenge in terms of funding. Those instructors can earn a lot more doing their jobs than teaching others to do their jobs. We don’t have people come in and say because California pays more but because the hospital will pay me more.

Math teachers we recruit then lose those to the universities, nursing faculty. We lost almost are entire information technology staff to defense contractors.

The good news story for us is, four years ago we started a concerted effort around student success. Went on a 58-college tour, scouted out the best innovations and challenges, documented those, focused on 15 initiative areas to try to pay attention and move more students across graduation stages, not just into registration lines.

We’re focusing on pathways, really, defined, structured pathways. We’re very cautious about random course taking. It’s expensive for students and for taxpayers. When you give faculty across institutions challenges, they get together and solve problems. The best example is with how we deal with developmental education or remediation. We have a large number of students who come to us but have to begin at high school level. We looked in the mirror to see what we were doing wrong. We started with the math faculty then English faculty from across the state, spent six months and broke down our developmental education courses. They broke it down on individual competencies, laid it out and repackaged it together. We decided we could take out 30 percent of it because of the overlap. Before, we could tell we had a math problem. Now we can say what that math problem is. We won’t know for several years the impact that will have on graduations.

We’re seeing a real impact on retention. And it’s creating great efficiencies for us. Our enrollment in developmental education was growing, growing, growing. Last year it was 13.2 percent of what we taught. In one year, that number curved to 8.8 percent. This year our enrollment as a system is down 2.5 percent. Having enrollment declines is not unusual coming off a recession. We grew by 28 percent over three years. Our folks were able to tease this out. Our enrollment decline is coming through the developmental education change. If you took that out, we’d actually be slightly up. What our goal is, the governor is supportive, legislators have been supportive, we hope to be able to take those resources saved in one area and have those moved to areas where we’ve really been struggling with these high-end job-driver programs. Those health care programs, nursing, radiography and tech ed programs. The challenge there is instructors and market-based salaries are much different. We can’t put 40 welders around one welding station.We have the most difficulty in areas where employers are struggling to find workers.

Q: What feedback do you get from employers?

Ralls: Sometimes you’ll hear, employers struggle to find enough folks in certain areas like machining, like welding, maintenance. They talk a lot about the challenges of what they’re concerned about, like retirements in the next 10 years and not people in the pipeline. Sometimes you hear, well, if we can just find someone with good communication skills and works well, we’ll take care of the rest. That’s the difference between hiring skills and firing skills. They hire on technical competencies but fire on the interpersonal competencies.

Q: The governor frequently talks about how he hears from employers all over the state that they have job openings but no skilled people to hire.

Ralls: We tried to address that with this proposal. We see job openings but not as many students in our programs in areas where we struggle for capacity. Health care we struggle because we don’t have capacity. We have hundreds on waiting lists in terms of getting into those programs. In other areas like maintenance and machining, there’s the interest gap which you don’t see with health care. There are lots of opportunities with younger students where we struggle to gain interest in those programs. One of the challenges we see is higher education is increasingly female, even in community college. Last year we were 61 percent female.

In certain program areas, health care programs, it’s 80 percent female. Tech programs are 9 percent female. There are gender issues that sometimes cut across. We haven’t found the magic bullet yet.

Q: How are the smaller colleges doing? Any talk of combining any to save money?

Ralls: There’s been a lot of variance in terms of growth. During the recession, it was all growth, driven by multiple things. People getting laid off all around the state, younger full -time students turning to community college primarily because of tuition, family finances. We’ve seen some variance. We haven’t been able to tie it to a particular trend. Most of our urban colleges are growing. In terms of the notion of combining colleges, that was something that was looked at about three years ago. That report showed, after seven years you could save about $6 million consolidating 12 colleges. That’s lot of squeezing for not a lot of juice. The difficulty, is, if you’re going to do something based on funding you wouldn’t consolidate, you’d close, but then you’d leave areas of the state without coverage. We don’t want to leave any part of the state without.

There’s an element of those cycling through. When we look at a lot of the folks who came through, people who have been laid off, the programs they often go back into are workforce programs. We know people are struggling to find jobs. If you study welding, you’re going to find a job, as long as you’re willing to move.

We have 150 in the welding program in Murphy. They don’t have 150 welding jobs in Murphy. My completion numbers are less than 10 percent, but there are pay stubs from every one of the students from the previous year. They had gained high level welding certifications and were traveling around the world and coming back to Murphy for three months of the year and leaving nine months. Some were making upward of $100,000 by doing that. Part of the challenge is what you’re studying and where you’re willing to locate.

Q: Do you have a window into the public school system in North Carolina, with all of the students you get who aren’t prepared?

Ralls: It’s a problem that we’re starting to make a difference in because we’re having different types of conversations, like our developmental education conversation. One of the things that makes us unique as community college, we’re the middle child in education. We’re the seam in seamless education. One part is workforce education but we’re tied together with both public school colleagues and university colleagues. What we weren’t doing well with public school colleagues is talking about what college readiness is. We have to have some common conversation. You have to move away from individual perspectives to conversations about what this means.

We do a lot of assessment in public schools. Then we have students coming to us and we gave them entirely different assessments and moved them back into high school level classes. If in that process you check your measuring sticks, that’s what we’re doing better now. We’re making sure expectations and measurements are more aligned. We’ve also done that on the other side. One of the things we did over last few years is work closely with university partners because a third of our students come to us with the purpose of transferring and getting a four-year degree.

We’re working with the university system to have a new articulation system. If you’re at Wake Tech and you take English 111, that course is going to transfer to all 16 universities in the UNC system and count as English. That is going to produce savings for students and for the state.

Q: Your instructors pay is 41st nationally. What about presidents’ pay?

Ralls: In North Carolina, as community colleges, if you look at us as a system compared to the UNC system, there are some differences. At the community colleges, we share the same curriculum, the same tuition, same admission standards, but as community colleges our institutions are administered locally. They decide on programs and salaries. There are limits on what you can pay with state funds, but all personnel matters fall under local boards of trustees.

Q: What will you ask lawmakers for?

Ralls: We make a good case for the investment both in efficiencies and the impact we have on the economy. One of our challenges was we had no worse place in terms of budget cuts and no better place, but we’ve had very high growth combined with budget cuts so our per student funding declined 20 percent in a short period of time. We’re trying to inch our way back.

Our goal this session is to fund us next year at the same level we’re funded this year. For us to take efficiency savings we’ve generated and apply it to these tech and health care areas where there’s jobs. We have some nonrecurring funds in the budget now. We’d like to retain those as recurring funds.

Wake Tech struggles. There’s a lot more students needing English courses they can’t get to get their degree. Most schools would use money to increase faculty salary.

Our basic list is allow us to be funded same way next year as this year and turn nonrecurring funds into recurring funds to address salary issues.

Q: What are your thoughts on common core?

Ralls: I am in favor of common core in terms of being an educator. It makes common sense. We’re an example of why it’s important. Part of the challenge for years was we had assessments in public schools and different types in higher education. We never stepped back and evaluated our measuring sticks. That’s what common core is. Let’s have a conversation about what the expectations are. Until you have those conversations, you’re going to have great inefficiencies and miscommunication going on.

Q: Other funding issues?

Ralls: Community college funding is different than other sectors of higher education. We’re funded in arrears. We’re difficult to predict about what enrollment will be. Our enrollment fluctuates based on the economy. Public schools look at demographics. Universities are admissions based. We’re open enrollment. The economy can lead to spikes. In rural areas, you have a plant layoff, you can get 150 students overnight. The recession was like having a plant closing all across North Carolina at the same time. We also have growth is younger full-time students looking at community colleges.

At community colleges, you shouldn’t expect to get wealthy. but with universities, everyone’s trying to get the best president, the best instructor. You run into those issues. What we share with each other as 58 colleges is a collective approach to what we teach and a seamlessness between us and schools and universities. We have a common plan, common tuition, students move in and out all the time. Each part of North Carolina is very different. We don’t want to dictate locally. It’s not good for me to tell them what to teach in the northeastern part of the state. They need to make those decisions locally.. The local community has a say of what they’re going to do with money from the state.

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