Wednesday, June 12, 2024

N.C. community colleges, facing enrollment slump, set new strategy

 (This post originally appeared in the Oct. 27 BNC Daily Digest)

The North Carolina Community College System just issued a strategic plan that emphasizes the colleges’ role as “economic first responders” dealing with a changing education landscape.

North Carolina’s 58 community colleges receive widespread praise for providing convenient, low-cost classes for students and helping new and existing industries train workers. When companies enter the state, the colleges often get credited as important actors in the location decision.

But the system’s enrollment, based on full-time equivalencies, is in a long-term slump as officials ask for more state investment and seek a new president to succeed interim leader William Carver. The system enrolls about 100,000 FTEs, down more than 20% from a peak of 130,000 in 2010, according to the plan. Enrollment is 9% below pre-COVID levels.

UNC System enrollment increased 10% between 2012 and 2021, to about 221,500 FTEs. It declined about 2% in 2022, reversing many years of steady increases, officials said last week.

The strategic report lists five goals aimed at continuing the community colleges’ role as a “nimble, responsive and innovative catalyst.” Here are capsules:

  • Address faculty and staff shortages with higher salaries and better recruiting.
  • Increase enrollment with better marketing and more partnerships.
  • Improve student success through excellent teaching and limiting barriers that face diverse students.
  • Cultivate more highly skilled workers through engagement with businesses and by responding to emerging employment trends.
  • Receive more funding from the state while creating closer alignment between the system office and the 58 colleges, including data management and IT.

The community colleges are asking for an additional $244 million in state support over the next three years, a 16% increase compared with the 2021-22 budget. If approved, employee salaries would increase about 13% between 2021 and 2025, bringing average faculty salaries to about $56,700. That is comparable to the systems in Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

It would also put funding for community college students at about 66% of the amount North Carolina spends on UNC System students in their first two years receiving the same academic credit. The funding ratio now is about 53%. Some call the disparity unfair, others say it reflects impressive efficiency.

The state board “has determined that an all-out systemwide effort must be mobilized to increase student access, enrollment and completion,” according to the report.

The system is particularly focused on workforce development and supporting North Carolina’s “hot” economic development reputation, says Anne Bacon, director of strategy planning and policy. But enrollment is also a priority. “If we don’t get students in, we can’t get them out at the end of the pipeline,” she says.

The strategic planning committee was chaired by state board members Ann Whitford, who owns a Morehead City construction company, and Wade “Bobby” Irwin Jr., who lives in Sparta and is an Alleghany County commissioner.

David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at

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