Scott Ralls became president of the N.C. Community College System in 2008 at the dawn of the recession. He would preside over a period of intense growth during a severe state budget crisis. But while absorbing thousands of unemployed workers who sought training, credentials and hope, the state’s 58 community colleges also began to reinvent themselves.
Some adopted fast-track programs to retrain people in careers with a future. Then, the colleges began to focus more intently on getting students to graduation, with pared down course offerings, streamlined remedial education and more robust counseling services. By last fall, all the changes were fully in effect – changes that have gained national recognition.
On Sept. 1, Ralls will leave North Carolina for the presidency of Northern Virginia Community College, one of the largest in the nation. On Thursday, he signed an agreement with 22 private colleges in North Carolina to smooth the pathways from two-year to four-year colleges. He previously inked a similar plan with the UNC system. Ralls sat down this week for an interview with The News & Observer. Here are excerpts.
What achievement are you most proud of?
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We had simultaneously the greatest budget challenges our system had ever faced, combined with a hyper-enrollment we had never had. We had over 25 percent enrollment [growth] over three years. ... What we said was that the road to recovery in North Carolina was running through the middle of the North Carolina Community College System. ...
What was a given for us was we were going to have less money and a lot more people. The thing I was so proud of at that time was how community college people responded to it. I don’t like to make military analogies because it’s a different thing; it’s not the same thing as being in a battle. But for education, it was as close to a battlefield kind of scenario you could have, where community colleges were really on the front lines of dealing with this unprecedented economic challenge.
What do you wish you had accomplished?
Community colleges have many, many more people who appreciate us, but I still feel like we don’t have enough people who champion us. Some people say, well, what’s the difference? If you look at it from a political standpoint, people who appreciate you make you a line in a speech; people who champion you make you a line in the budget. I don’t think it is fully recognized – the breadth and depth and impact of community colleges in this state. As much as I’ve worked towards that every day, I still don’t feel like we’ve been able to accomplish that yet. You look at the numbers the Department of Commerce published last year – over 40 percent of all the wage earners in our state have been students at one of our 58 community colleges in the last 10 years. No sector of higher ed has the impact on alumni wages in North Carolina that our system has. ...
We still struggle on areas like faculty salaries. I do believe North Carolina has the best system of community colleges in the country and has been supported in ways that you don’t find in other states. But we’re now among the lowest paid in terms of what we pay our instructors, and there’s no way that the system will stay as great as long as it stays in that position.
What’s the future of free community college, which was recently launched in Tennessee, and “debt-free” higher education, being discussed by some presidential candidates?
In some ways, it seems to be more of a political discussion than a policy discussion, and it needs to be kept in the context of policy. ... The overall philosophy of what that proposal is about really gets at something that’s so important, which is the fact that higher education, particularly for lower-income students and middle-income students, is becoming much less accessible than it was. When you go back to the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, tuition wasn’t so costly. You could still work part-time jobs and pay for your tuition. That’s not possible now in most places. ... Today if you look at community colleges, two-thirds of our students at community colleges across the United States are from the lower 50 percent of the income bracket. If you look at the top 50 most selective colleges, that’s only 5 percent of their student population.
What does North Carolina need to do to compete with other states on economic development?
I think we need to be aggressive about economic development. North Carolina has never been a state that has, compared to many of our neighbors, been aggressive about financial incentives. We have to be in the game; we don’t need to be the leaders of that game. I’ve had a lot of economic development experience, and I don’t know where we ever won a project because we gave more incentives than someone. That being said, though, I do believe North Carolina in recent years has fallen way too much on its heels and needs to get back on its toes again when it comes to economic development. ...
We’re not all going to agree on economic strategies, but we need to have more agreement about economic strategy and we need to get behind economic strategy. And we need to compete as a state. We also need to recognize how vital our educational institutions are as a secret weapon in that process.
What are the challenges facing community colleges and higher education in North Carolina?
In a world where higher education is greatly in flux ... I’m someone who buys into the notion there is a higher education bubble. Some would say everybody’s trying to be Harvard, and I’m not saying that that’s not a noble thing to pursue. I think what higher education needs, and perhaps in North Carolina, is sometimes for us to be more like us. What I mean is that we should never lose our jobs-focused approach, we should always be doing our best to keep our tuition and fees as low as possible and we need to be community focused. As we’ve always said in North Carolina, meet people where they are and carry them as far as they can go, which means that for us, we take just as much pride in how inclusive we are as Harvard takes in how exclusive they are. The world needs community colleges just as much as it needs the Harvards.
Deal to make transfer easier for community college students
On Thursday, community college leaders signed a new agreement with 22 of North Carolina’s private colleges to simplify the transfer path for students.
Each year, about 2,000 community college students transfer to North Carolina’s 36 private colleges, but sometimes they find that they won’t get credit for all of their courses. The agreement establishes which courses will fulfill general education requirements and sets out required courses for community college students in the hopes that they will map their pathway to a four-year college. Students who earn an associate’s degree at a community college will be guaranteed entry as juniors with full credit at the private colleges.
Hope Williams, president of the N.C. Independent Colleges and Universities, said the goal is to make the transfer experience “positive, smooth and streamlined.”
Leaders gathered for the signing ceremony at William Peace University in Raleigh.