New Era Looms for Community College System

The North Carolina Community College System is choosing a successor to H. Martin Lancaster, its current president, who will step down in May 2008. In a series of meetings, the search committee has solicited public comment about the “qualifications and characteristics” needed by the next president.

The July 11 meeting in Raleigh, chaired by Norma B. Turnage, vice chair of the committee, was low-key, with only eight commentators. But enough issues surfaced to suggest that the next president will face some troublesome conflicts.

The 58-school system is often called a “stepchild” of North Carolina’s public education system because it gets less attention than either K-12 or the University of North Carolina. But it is rapidly growing in importance. Already, about 800,000 students attend per year (compared with 190,000 in the four-year UNC system). If the University of North Carolina adopts a minimum admission standard, as expected, students who aren’t qualified for UNC may opt for community colleges, increasing their enrollment.

There is also new interest, reflected in cooperative efforts such as Western Carolina University’s “2-step” program, in helping graduates of two-year schools move “seamlessly” to the four-year system. And a new law allows community colleges to provide teacher certification programs for college graduates who want to teach in North Carolina. Until this year, restrictions choked those programs.

Is the community college system ready to teach more students and prepare them for four-year schools? Ann Russell, president of the North Carolina Community College Faculty Association (NCCCFA), told the committee that faculty compensation for the system is the lowest in the southeastern region and 44th in the nation. Furthermore, faculty in the 44-year-old system will soon be retiring “in droves.” Community colleges have often been able to “make silk purses out of sows’ ears,” Russell said, but the resources may be running out.

Lack of resources, however, may be a smaller problem than incentives built into the system. John Duncan, who has worked at four North Carolina community colleges over 31 years, pointed out that the state supports community colleges through a formula that rewards enrollment rather than education success. Getting enrollment numbers up is “the name of the game,” said Duncan, a game that leads to “enrollment padding” and even “enrollment fraud.” (Duncan is preparing a study of community colleges for the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.)

The goals of the system are broad. Jon Lee Wiggs, author of an authoritative history of North Carolina’s community colleges, quoted from early documents stating that the goal of the colleges is to “take the people where they are” and provide them with education. Thus, he considers “remediation and developmental education” a central role for the colleges.

In contrast, Bonita Budd, who teaches at Wake Technical Community College, stressed the importance of educating students from other countries, acquainting American students with the global economy, and easing students’ transition to four-year institutions.

Indeed, the system is highly diverse, and each college is relatively autonomous, although overseen by the State Board of Community Colleges. Don Hunter, executive director of the North Carolina Association of Community College Trustees, expressed hope that the new president would recognize the traditions of the past, while fostering accountability and compliance with the rules.

His comments reflected the fact that accountability may be a problem. In 2006, state auditor Leslie W. Merritt Jr. reported that only one of the 58 North Carolina community colleges has an internal auditor (Central Piedmont, which has two).

A few high-profile cases have also raised doubts about fiscal accountability. In 2006, the president of Halifax Community College was dismissed for multiple financial improprieties. Later in the year, the State Board of Community Colleges censured the trustees of Blue Ridge Community College for insufficient oversight, which had led to financial violations in connection with the school’s baseball program.

The State Board of Community Colleges expects to select a new president by the end of 2007.