Higher education: Making the grade
After 28 years in education in his native South Carolina, Jimmie Williamson traded palmettos for pines last July. His arrival at the N.C. Community College System came shortly after voters approved $350 million in bonds for construction projects and other campus improvements. Outreach has been a key focus, an enormous task when moving from a state with 46 counties to North Carolina, with 100. “I will say, this is a huge state,” Williamson says. One of his first moves was to name Maureen Little to a new position, vice president for economic development. The office brings together customized training, small business centers and the BioNetwork, which provides training and education for the life-sciences industry.
PRESIDENT, NORTH CAROLINA COMMUNITY COLLEGE SYSTEM
While in South Carolina, including two years as president of the technical-college system, Williamson played a key role in economic development, working with automakers Volvo and BMW and other companies in developing specialized training programs. With that experience, he is looking to broaden the system’s role in attracting new businesses to the state. Williamson has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Winthrop University and a Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina.
What was the most unexpected thing in moving to North Carolina from South Carolina?
The real divides. I had heard about the urban versus rural divide. It’s very real. I think that the long-term economic viability of this state is going to depend on how well we handle and deliver education to those rural areas. It’s taken care of in the urban areas, but are we delivering what we need to deliver in Montgomery County or in Ashe County? That has surprised me a lot. If you’re a little county, it’s hard to compete with Wake County, which has 63 people moving in every day.
Describe the importance of the community colleges’ role in economic development.
I envision the community-college system as a key player in the cultivation and attraction of business and industry to North Carolina — part of the sales team, if you will. I’d love to see an original equipment manufacturer come to N.C. We’re well overdue for an OEM. I’d like to see the community college play a key role in attracting an OEM, ultimately giving us the opportunity to do the training and the workforce preparation for that particular company.
How is the system addressing the skills gap for companies unable to find qualified workers?
I hear the term “skills gap” a lot. A more interesting term for me is “interest gap.” The bulk of the jobs being created in manufacturing, information technology, health care, in all sectors, require more than a high-school diploma and less than a bachelor’s degree. So if we can reach down to the middle-school level and begin to talk about those careers early on, we can get parents educated about these middle-skills, high-paying careers that don’t require a bachelor’s. That’s our challenge, and it goes back to an education and branding initiative — not marketing, not advertising. The local colleges do a great job of that. But at the system level, it’s really all about education and branding.
With university costs rising, why isn’t community-college enrollment increasing?
Our enrollment is tied directly to the economy. When the economy is bad, people come back to school. And when it’s better, they’re working. If you look at our overall enrollment, it might be down slightly, but people are coming back in and doing more short-term, certificate-based [work] over in continuing education. They’re getting that skill set, and then they’re able to move on and get a job.
What can be done to boost enrollment?
We do need to do more as a state to increase post-secondary participation. Although we are well ahead of some other states, for us to be competitive globally, not just in the United States, we need to really focus on increasing the pipeline. North Carolina has taken some good steps recently by initiating the College and Career Promise [a program that allows high-school students to earn tuition-free college credits], and by establishing early colleges, which provide an opportunity for a student to get an associate degree while they are still in high school. Recently, I was invited to the graduation ceremony for high schools that had 100% graduation rates. Of 62, 48 were early-college high schools at the community colleges. So we’re doing something right; it’s just how do we get that word out. We don’t talk about
our successes enough.
Also, I think we need to look at all aspects of what we’re doing and make sure we are responsive to the community needs. We shouldn’t offer programs and courses just because we’ve always done it.
What’s the latest on the Guaranteed Admission Program, which would steer lesser qualified students to community colleges rather than universities?
The General Assembly asked the UNC System to put together a report, which will be presented in the next legislative session. The UNC System has compiled their report, and they are in discussion with key House and Senate members about what it might look like. I think we will see some resurgence or iteration of some of the concepts in the next session.
Goals for 2017
There were three main topics that I came into this job with and really want to focus on until the end of my first year. One is building relationships, both with the colleges and with internal and external stakeholders and the General Assembly. The second is finding resources to fulfill our mission, or making sure I am dialed in to finding the resources. The third is making sure that our system office is adding value to the colleges. We don’t educate one single student at 200 West Jones Street in Raleigh. It happens out in the field, so if we’re not adding value to what our colleges are trying to achieve, then we’re missing the mark.