Community colleges produce mechanics, nurse’s aides, computer technicians and chefs. But they also can produce college presidents.
When Kandi Deitemeyer, 49, became the fourth president of Charlotte’s Central Piedmont Community College in January 2017, she also became its first leader with a community-college degree. She graduated with an associate degree from Polk Community College — now Polk State College — in her native Florida and went on to earn bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of South Florida in Tampa.
“Dr. D,” as students call her, has spent her entire career in the community-college system. Prior to joining CPCC, she had served as president of College of The Albemarle in Elizabeth City since 2010.
Deitemeyer, who earns an annual salary of $321,625, succeeded Tony Zeiss, who held the job for 24 years before retiring in 2016. During his tenure, the college grew from one to six regional campuses and lured international companies such as Siemens to establish successful workforce-development programs.
Despite Deitemeyer’s unique ascension from community-college grad to leader of a school with an annual budget topping $200 million, vocational training is still the bedrock of most community colleges. Today, learning a trade often involves cutting-edge technology. In April, CPCC became the first U.S. community college to launch Tesla START, a 12-week automotive technician training program, at its Huntersville campus.
The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
You’re a community-college alumna yourself — what an endorsement!
I feel very fortunate to have gone to a community college. It was the right choice for me, financially and from an academic-preparedness standpoint. I’m the fifth of five children, so it was also the right choice for my family. It’s been a great journey, but I have not had the career I planned on.
What was your plan?
I was first drawn to broadcast journalism. I was on one path, but an opportunity I had with a faculty member led me down another. I love to communicate with people, to find out their stories. I guess that’s the journalist in me. Now, instead of telling people’s life stories, I’m helping them navigate their own journeys. I had a lot of mentors who took risks on me and challenged me. They saw more in me than I saw in myself. My career trajectory is not one I anticipated, but it was absolutely the path I was called to follow.
What is your view of the rising cost of a four-year degree?
Higher education has become out of reach for many. And community college is an affordable option.
Not every job requires a four-year degree. There are jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage that are going unfilled because there aren’t enough qualified people to do those jobs. There’s a great need, and we have the capacity to train people and get them in that job pipeline.
What should prospective college students consider?
They should educate themselves on all their options and make an informed choice. When a student says he wants to go to a particular college, they should be asking: Why do I want to go there? Do I need a loan to go there? What kind of job can I get when I graduate? How much will it pay? How long will it take me to pay off that loan? And finally: Is this college really the best value?
People have got to consider return on investment when choosing a college.
Former second Lady Jill Biden, a community-college professor, has described her students as determined, hard-working and “resolved to learn.”
They want a vibrant student life, too. They want to take classes at convenient times. They want a great overall experience — in and outside the classroom.
Community colleges are underleveraged, and I’ve spent my life working to get away from that. They’re affordable, offer flexibility and offer a pathway to more than just a job — to a career, a true career. Yet they’re not always under consideration.
Think of today’s automotive tech. This is not the mechanic you remember from 30 years ago. Today, the job is high-tech; it’s all computerized. It involves critical thinking — just as nursing does.
We’ve got to change the narrative on community colleges. We’re open-access; we don’t require the ACT or SAT to get in. We’re not a second choice. It’s not a “less than.” It’s a “more than.” If you can leave college without debt, that’s more money in your pocket right away.
You mention critical thinking, which is typically what liberal-arts colleges tout as their main benefit.
We’re not just teaching job skills. We’re talking about the importance of showing up to work on time, being an effective communicator, protecting your employer’s proprietary information and being professional. Critical thinking is embedded into so much of what we teach.