Higher ed: Continuing education, positive prognosis

 In September 2021

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The COVID pandemic hurt enrollment at North Carolina’s community colleges. But doses of student grants and training programs for high-demand careers are bringing improvements.


The COVID-19 pandemic has debilitated many things, including enrollment at North Carolina community colleges. Thomas Stith III, president of the 58-campus system, says it’s down almost 8%, falling to 332,321 for this year’s spring semester from 361,082 the year prior. But he expects it to recover as the economy improves.

North Carolina community-college graduates are the backbone of the state’s workforce. They accounted for 33% of the state’s wage earners — 1.7 million people — between 2009 and 2019, and they earned $60 billion in wages during fiscal year 2020, according to the community-college system. “These numbers show the critical role community colleges play in our economy,” Stith says. “And I’m optimistic about the role we’ll continue to play in preparing the workforce for available jobs. We are focused as a system to expand our traditional role as a key component of economic recovery and growth. The community-college system will continue to provide the workforce that is in great demand now.” That will require a mix of funding, programs and outreach.

North Carolina’s community colleges are banking on $137.8 million from Gov. Cooper’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, which was created from federal COVID-19 aid packages. It includes Longleaf Commitment, a partnership between the community-college system and N.C. Education Assistance Authority that administers financial aid and savings programs.

Longleaf Commitment will fund community-college tuition for 2021 high school graduates who are first-time college students and from low-income and working-class families. They can attend any of the system’s colleges, earning an associate degree or credits toward an advanced degree. Individual grants range from $700 to $2,800 per academic year for two years. In addition, the fund provides up to $750 in scholarships for eligible students who enroll in any of 10 training programs for high-demand workers. Those include aircraft maintenance, construction, health care, industrial/manufacturing and information technology.

More students are enrolling in Wayne Community College’s short-term programs as unemployment benefits, augmented during the pandemic, wind down. “People are preparing their resumes, and our NCWorks career center is seeing more people returning for employment assistance,” says Renita Allen Dawson, the college’s vice president for workforce continuing education and community engagement.

WCC is creating training programs and apprenticeships in partnership with local businesses. “We are impacting our local economy by educating people and getting them into the workforce faster through our short-term programs,” says college President Patty Pfieffer. Some of its 30 programs, which range from agriculture to welding and offer 98 certificates, can be completed in four months or less. WCC is North Carolina’s first and the country’s second community college to launch an artificial intelligence degree program, which will graduate its first class in 2023. College leaders say it will help students and communities capitalize on the state’s tech boom. It
adds to the college’s gaming and simu-lation and cybersecurity programs, says Glenn Royster, chairman of WCC’s information-systems technology department. “Artificial intelligence is here, and it is going to grow at an exponential pace,” he says. “We can’t afford to stop or slow down because the rest of the world is in that space, and we need to remain competitive.”

Blue Ridge Community College’s pandemic-induced enrollment decline wasn’t as sharp as what other colleges in the system faced, says Laura Leatherwood, BRCC president. “We knew the pandemic was a temporary thing,” she says. “We didn’t know how long it would last, but we positioned ourselves, so we could emerge in a position of strength.”

BRCC and four fellow North Carolina community colleges are part of a pilot project and outreach campaign — Better Skills. Better Jobs. — that launched in June. A partnership with the John M. Belk Endowment and myFutureNC, its goal is 2 million North Carolinians, age 25 to 44, with a high-quality credential or postsecondary degree by 2030. In 2016, myFutureNC says there were 1.3 million, so student recruitment will be required.

With support from the endowment, BRCC developed a robust marketing plan that gives prospective students explicit instructions on accessing Longleaf Commitment grants, says Scott Queen, the college’s vice president for economic and workforce development. “We are giving them a literal check list, and we anticipate the scholarships will have a big impact on enrollment,” he says.

Along with billboards, digital marketing and direct mailings to 5,000 households, BRCC put boots on the ground. “We met face-to-face with every nonprofit and armed them with the information they needed to inform their clients, patients and members,” Leatherwood says. “They essentially became an extension of the college in their communities and gave us more outreach capacity.”

Pitt Community College is part of the Better Skills. Better Jobs. program. Thomas Gould, vice president of academic affairs and student development services, says enrollment is increasing across all of its programs, including health sciences, HVAC, biotechnology, electrical, welding and building construction. And the college is partnering with Pitt County Schools, East Carolina University and local pharma industry partners to develop pathways leading to employment in pharmaceutical services.

The pandemic taught college administrators a lesson in flexibility. While Pitt anticipates returning to a traditional classroom setting, it also will use online, hybrid, blended and synchronous virtual teaching formats to accommodate student learning styles, scheduling preferences and lingering pandemic concerns. “We are expanding our programming offerings, and this fall we will offer our first dental assisting class as part of a new curriculum,” Gould says. “In addition, we are collaborating with Pitt County Schools to launch our teacher preparation transfer program and pathways.”

The efforts are being recognized nationally. Brunswick Community College, for example, was ranked No. 1 by New York-based financial technology company SmartAsset for the second consecutive year in 2021. The ranking is based on a variety of criteria, including affordability, graduation and transfer rates, learning objectives and student success. The pass rate is about 95% in its nursing program. “And we’re not just talking about passing courses, I’m talking about obtaining state licensures as well,” says Greg Bland, vice president of economic and workforce development and continuing education. “We’re pretty proud of this ranking.” ■

Shot in the arm

Enrollment in MBA and executive education programs is up as more people improve their position in preparation for a post-pandemic working world.

The COVID-19 pandemic is increasing interest in MBA and executive education programs statewide. Bradley Staats, professor and associate dean of MBA programs at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, is pleased but not surprised. “Fifteen months ago, I would have said we were not sure how COVID-19 would shape our enrollment, but we know that MBA programs run counter cyclical in that the better the economy is doing, the more people choose to stay at work versus pursuing further education,” he says. “In a world where the only constant is change, COVID caused people to pause and ask themselves if they have the right skill set to thrive into the future.”

Reston, Virginia-based association Graduate Management Admission Council reported that business-school applications jumped 21% in 2020 from the year prior. That trend is reflected in North Carolina. Last year, Kenan-Flagler, for example, reported 43% more MBA applications, according to the website poetsandquants.com, which reports on graduate business education programs. Its new class has 344 students compared to 252 last year.

New study options are matching demand. UNC Wilmington’s Cameron School of Business, for example, launched its online master’s degree programs before the pandemic started, says Nivine Richie, professor and associate dean of graduate and international programs. “We already had the infrastructure in place,” she says.

Richie says Cameron’s international MBA program, for example, used a hybrid platform to connect students with a Czech Republic-based business for a weeklong consulting project. Most of the students converged at the Wilmington campus, but four of them, along with the Czech Republic team, participated remotely. “We were pleasantly surprised to see how well it worked,” she says. “Our students did a marvelous job for that company.”

Cameron’s health care management and business-analytics programs are growing, and it will launch several specialties — human resource management, information systems, cyber security and entrepreneurship — this fall. It also began dual-degree programs. “Through our dual-degree program, students can get both an MBA and a master’s of science degree in finance or business analytics,” Richie says.

MBA programs at private schools are growing, too. Hope Williams, president of North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities, agrees that people are seeking ongoing education and professional-development credentials or to earn an advanced degree. “We have been pleased that our students, many of whom are adults, are thinking about their future and how they can better position themselves for a better career and future through our programs,” she says. ■

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