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Community college president urges drastic shakeup of N.C. public higher ed

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This is a letter that John Dempsey, president of Sandhills Community College, wrote this week to Peter Hans and Jennifer Haygood, who become president and chief financial officer, respectively, of the UNC System on Aug. 1. Dempsey has led the Pinehurst-based community college since 1989. A Vietnam veteran, he has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Massachusetts.


Dear Peter and Jennifer:

In addition to all the thanks and good wishes (of which you deserve even more than you’ll receive), I wanted to give you something to think about as you begin your new journey. It may be pie in the sky, but if anybody can pull it off, you two can. Again, thanks and good wishes from the heart.

“There is a tide in the affairs of men which, if taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” The line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar perfectly describes the situation in which North Carolina higher education finds itself today:

John Dempsey

— A trickle has become a flood as COVID-19 has accelerated the state’s now inevitable switch from in-person to online learning.
— The economic impact of COVID-19 threatens to leave gaping holes in North Carolina’s budget for years to come.
— For the first time in its history, the University of North Carolina is led by individuals who respect, admire, and trust the state’s community colleges and who in turn are respected, admired, and trusted by those colleges.

This alignment of the planets is unlike anything we have ever experienced. It tells me we have the chance to bring real change to higher education in North Carolina  — to give each sector the chance to focus on what it does best and what it can deliver to our state at a reasonable cost.

My idea is radical yet simple: Let community colleges educate all the state’s freshmen and sophomores and the universities educate all the juniors, seniors, and graduate students. It is not a secret that UNC costs per student are substantially higher than the cost of educating students at community colleges. Moving freshman/sophomore education to those colleges could potentially save (or enable colleges and the university to redirect) billions of taxpayer dollars in the coming decade.

It won’t be an easy job to get this accomplished. As Tom Hanks says about baseball,  “… if it was easy, everyone would do it.” Students who might have been university-bound after high school will not want to give up Greek life, football, and the chance to be exposed in their first two years to some of the leading scholars in their disciplines. Universities will balk at proposals that reduce the scope of their mission and potentially threaten an important source of revenue. Community colleges may push back against emphasis on university transfer rather than workforce preparation. The move toward online education will have to exempt health care and other touch-required disciplines.

There will surely be lots of complications — though six months ago nobody thought we would be learning and working from home and watching baseball games in empty stadiums.

To be honest, I realize how hard it will be to get a plan like this accepted, but I feel it might really be worth the try. Let community colleges specialize in providing much less expensive undergraduate education, and have universities focus on first-rate baccalaureate and graduate work. Even if it has to be phased in over a decade, this could save taxpayers billions of dollars, while actually enhancing the quality of the product higher education could deliver.

I do know this: if this idea or any ideas that take a macro look at North Carolina higher education can ever succeed, now is the time. We’ll never get a chance again to take this fundamental look at how our product is delivered. As Elvis Presley once sang, “It’s now or …” well, you know the rest.

All the best, John

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