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Christensen: Are community colleges getting above their raisin’?

Students walk between classes at Wake Tech Community College in this January 2015 file photo.
Students walk between classes at Wake Tech Community College in this January 2015 file photo. Raleigh

The community college system may be one of North Carolina’s great success stories, but it has humble roots.

In 1957, Gov. Luther Hodges persuaded the legislature to appropriate $500,000 per institution to establish industrial education centers throughout the state, and private companies pitched in to help. The first center, the Burlington-Alamance County Industrial Education Center, opened in 1958 as part of Burlington’s city schools.

Eventually, the system grew to 58 community colleges, providing not only job training but a two-year college track within driving distance of nearly every North Carolinian. For a large state with a dispersed population, this was a great model.

But there has been frequent tension about its role and where it fits into the state’s educational framework, as the system has grown from technical institutes to community colleges.

Now two proposals are being discussed that could be major policy shifts – opening the door to offering four-year degrees and giving campuses new tuition powers. These ideas are causing concern in legislative circles.

The community colleges always have offered only two-year degrees. But a proposal would allow them to offer four-year degrees in nursing.

In October, the State Board of Community Colleges considered authorizing a feasibility study on whether to allow four-year nursing degrees. Currently 55 of the 58 community colleges offer two-year nursing degrees. Many of their recipients go on to earn BA degrees elsewhere.

There is demand. The state had 97,000 registered nurses in 2012, and with health reform, nursing is a growth industry.

The board tabled the issue in October, but it is scheduled take it up again Friday.

The proposal is in response to a 2010 report by the Institute of Medicine that said North Carolina should increase the number of registered nurses with four-year degrees to 80 percent by 2020, from 34 percent.

The proposal says that if community colleges could grant BA nursing degrees, the state could turn out more highly trained nurses. And studies have shown that nurses educated at community colleges scattered across the state are more likely to stay and work in rural and small-town hospitals, health departments, long-term care facilities and other local agencies.

But the idea raises serious policy questions regarding the mission of community colleges, duplication with the state university system and private colleges, and program quality.

As the community college study notes, once a community college can offer a four-year degree in nursing, “they would then have the opportunity to pursue offering bachelor degree programs in multiple areas.”

That’s not all. The community colleges board is also considering a proposal to change the way campuses are funded. It would allow community colleges to charge a surcharge/supplement of up to 10 percent that each campus would keep.

Currently, all tuition receipts are state funds, pooled and shared by the system.

That proposal came from the community college presidents, who in the fall of 2014 appointed a study committee that recommended the changes. The proposal is still being debated by the presidents, so the community colleges board is not expected to act on it Friday. It also would require legislative approval.

This tuition surcharge plan has the potential of worsening the state’s urban/rural divide. The fast-growing community colleges – mainly those in the wealthy urban areas – would benefit most.

Already, community college tuition has been raised 71 percent in the past six years. Rural community colleges would be hard pressed to add a surcharge without hurting the people they were designed to serve.

These proposals come at a time of flux in the community college system. Scott Ralls left the system presidency last September to become president of Northern Virginia Community College, and his successor has not yet been chosen.

They also show that there is sometimes a fine line between meeting the needs of the future and getting above your raisin’.

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