Are Community Colleges the Unsung Heroes of American Education?

Community colleges fill the roles that their more visible, more prominent counterparts in primary, secondary, and higher education prefer not to do, or, in some cases, fail to do. While K-12 systems and universities often conduct grand schemes of experimentation and social transformation, community colleges do the prosaic trench work of remedial education, job skills training, and general education for transfer. Community colleges are also last in line when it comes to funding; often, they are expected to produce university-level courses with K-12 money.

And they serve vastly different populations. This is particularly true in a state like North Carolina, where you have several large, rapidly growing metropolitan areas with prosperous, educated populations and many rural areas where the population is often impoverished and declining in numbers.

Few people know the challenges faced by community colleges as well as Scott Ralls. For the last seven years, he has been president of the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS), the nation’s third largest community college system, and he is the Chair of the National Council of State Directors of Community Colleges. Before that, he was the president of Craven Community College in New Bern, and previously held a variety of high-level workforce development and technical education positions.

Ralls will soon leave for a new challenge: he will become the president of North Virginia Community College—the nation’s 11th largest college. Jay Schalin of the Pope Center had a long talk with him about the role of community colleges, about how the NCCCS has dealt with a variety of issues, and where the NCCCS stands today.

JS: First, it has been a turbulent seven years for North Carolina and the nation. What have been some of your biggest challenges?

SR: Obviously, the big challenge was the recession that lasted from 2008-11. I like to joke that the day I started this job was the day that the recession started. We not only were faced with budget cuts [NCCCS received a seven percent cut in state appropriations in 2011], but for us it was also a period of hyper-growth, with a 28 percent increase in enrollment over three years as many unemployed people came back to retool.

The real challenge was not to be defined by the challenges. It would have been very easy to say, we have the worst budget challenges we’ve ever had and one-third more students than we ever had; just doing what we normally do is plenty.

We didn’t do that. Instead, we stepped up to address opportunities. We did a lot of big things collectively as a system: redesign developmental [remedial] education, redesign 80 technical programs for stackable certification, redesign the way we teach math. We also focused on our articulation agreement [with the University of North Carolina system] in terms of student success, and worked with the public schools on dual enrollment pathways.

And in 2009, in the heart of the recession, we decided we could do better in terms of student completion. [Community colleges in general have low completion rates: the six-year success rate for two-year programs, defined as students who graduated, transferred to four-year schools, or are still enrolled with at least 36 credits, was 41 percent by 2010 for students who entered in 2004 for NCCCS]

JS: Was there an improvement in success rates?

SR: We don’t really know quite yet. We will only begin measuring our efforts this fall. And much of the implementation of our plan didn’t begin until this year. We measure over six years, since, although we’re a two-year college, most of our students work part-time and take longer than two years.

But we do look at things that are indicants of success. When we changed developmental education, we had 5,000 more students complete college-level math last year than the year before. And we had more students take our college-success class, where they map out their goals. Those are the kinds of things we look for, but we don’t want to pat ourselves on the back too quickly. We know that the issue of college success for community colleges is our Achilles Heel, and all the things we’ve done doesn’t mean that we got it right.

JS: What would you say the current, unresolved challenges are?

SR: What we have not fixed is that we pay our faculty among the worst. We rank 11th out of 16 in the Southeast in terms of faculty salaries. We struggle even more than the public schools or the UNC system. Now that we’re into a post-recession climate, it is the issue for us.

There are different challenges coming out of a recession. When there are increased employment opportunities in the private workforce, we struggle to retain teachers. That means our teachers are pretty strong targets in a world where employers struggle to find the skilled workers they need. Nursing instructors are targets, machinists become great targets. When I was the president of Craven Community College from 2002 to 2008, we lost almost all of our IT faculty, whom we put so much investment in to get their certifications, because defense contractors hired them away.

JS: Have you been able to take advantage of the excess of Ph.D.s in some fields over the available jobs at the university level to hire more qualified faculty? 

SR: We’re not seeing a flood of people coming out of the universities looking to teach at the community college level; it also depends on which region of the state you’re in. The dynamics are different between the Triangle and Tri-County Community College. If we are getting Ph.D.-level teachers, it’s in the Triangle.

JS: Speaking of different dynamics at metropolitan and rural areas, what about the rural colleges?

SR: We’re seeing a general decline in enrollment, but less than any other state in the Southeast. It’s regional; Wake Tech hasn’t had a decline, ever. Some of the rural areas of the state; that loss in enrollment reflects a loss of jobs, it reflects a loss of population, it reflects a lot of things.

Growth is happening in a few areas and not in the rural areas. Being a community college president in some of the most hard-pressed rural areas is really like mission work. One thing we faced was the notion of consolidation and I was not a proponent, because if you’re a community college, what you mean to a rural area is huge. The hope you’ll see through that community college is important.

JS: Do you have a solution for the rural areas?

SR: I don’t have a magic bullet. One thing that helps: maintaining the strong links between economic development and workforce development. NC’s always had that. Our system was created on those linkages.

JS: The nature of community colleges has changed over the years. 

SR: We grew out of a system of twenty industrial training and four junior colleges. I don’t think we ever lost sight of our mission: our mission was to be comprehensive when we were created, with the industrial centers turned into community colleges for the purpose of offering transfer degrees. [Former governors] Terry Sanford and Luther Hodges were in conflict over the mission. It was Sanford’s idea to turn training centers into community colleges, while Hodges thought the workforce mission would be ruined. They argued over whether libraries should be on campuses; Sanford won when he convinced Hodges that industrial workers would need to read. Everything comes back to workforce.

JS: And today, what are CC’s becoming now? 

SR: Our mission is to take people where they are and take them as far as they can go. Some folks come in the door just learning to read—that’s why we do the literacy programs in North Carolina. Going as far as you can go may also mean getting a four-year degree and then a Ph.D.

Or it can have a workforce emphasis. One of my concerns is that too often it means either-or [an academic education or a focus on working], not both.

I’m a big proponent of technical education, and I’m very concerned that there’s a huge gap between the amount of rhetoric about the need for technical education and the investment.

We have made some gains in funding technical education by the way we fund enrollment. A while back we were dropping our programs in technical education. The argument often was that we were losing our focus, becoming too university-focused or too liberal arts-focused.

One of the reasons we were struggling is that we funded everything the same, so if you taught a sociology class with 30 students where you didn’t need anything more than a blackboard, you got funded the same as a nursing clinical that can have no more than 10 to 12 students or a machining program where you need a quarter-million dollar piece of equipment.

When the recession hit, our budget fell while our student enrollment spiked. That caused our per-student funding to drop by 21 percent. And that hit technical, science, and health care programs the hardest, because one of the things you can do to save money is to add another seat to a lecture course, but you can’t do that with a course that can only be taught in labs and has very expensive equipment.

So we created a tiered funding structure so that technical programs, health care programs, science and math courses, and courses that lead to third-party industry certifications or licensures are all funded at a higher level.

We put a priority on what we call job-driver programs and they are now moving forward: we’ve had about an eight percent switchover in enrollment in those areas since we started doing that. One reason why people should consider higher funding for community colleges is that they prioritize well.

But there are still many problems with in the public perception of technical training. One is that we don’t always produce a lot of graduates because the students often leave before they graduate because they’ve been offered good jobs [e.g. welding].

Also, they tend to be unpopular among students coming out of high school. The average for our career technical program is 31 and the average for our university transfer program is 24. It’s the students who come back after a period of time who have an interest in technical programs.

Furthermore, in many of those areas, they are very male-dominated and our population, like all of higher education, is becoming more and more female. And so we have our areas where colleges have made a great investment because they’re supporting their local economies, there are available jobs, and employers are saying we just can’t find workers but too often some of those programs will not be at capacity.

JS: The perception problem of technical education and workforce preparation seems to suggest an absence of guidance throughout the whole education system?

SR: You’ve got a 1:500 ratio of counselors to students in the high schools and something like 1:1,000 in the community colleges. The state is never going to invest enough money in counselors to solve that issue. We’ve got to figure out other ways of addressing that, and we’ve proposed something this year, although I’m worried that it’s not catching on in political circles so far.

This solution is called Career Coaches, and it’s working locally at Central Carolina Community College. It involves embedding community college counselors, particularly focused on career technical pathways, in high schools. Some states have already started this, with some success.

We did a study recently at Guilford Tech as part of our student success effort. Several years ago, they asked the incoming students from nine high schools in that area what they wanted to do when they finished and approximately 40 percent wanted to be a psychologist. Now, I’m a psychologist, but there’s not that many psychologist jobs.

This lack of awareness of the technical pathway to the good life is a challenge that can only be overcome by businesses changing their hiring practices. Everybody’s in favor of technical education, only just for other people’s children. We get into these either-or conversations—you should be in the career tech program or you should be in the college transfer program, but why can’t it be a little bit of both? Why can’t we be more like Germany, where you can rise to be a CEO from an apprenticeship program?

We set up structures that too often only put status on certain types of postsecondary education. And we also create structures that don’t allow students to be both career and college ready.

And people don’t realize how many folks come back to community colleges with four-year degrees. About 15 percent of our nursing students have four-year degrees when they come to us. There’s a lot more “swirl,” as some people call it, than people realize.

The opportunities to take interesting educational paths start in high school, but if you’re a student who does not have a pretty engaged adult around you, you’re going to miss out on them.

JS: Are community colleges subject to mission creep, such as the pressure to become four-year schools?

SR: You have 23 states where community colleges offer four-year degrees.

JS: You’ve got that here, such as the joint engineering program at Craven and NC State. You’ve got teachers who are starting to become tenured professors at Wake Tech.

SR: Is it Jeff Selingo, the editor of Chronicle of Higher Education who wrote College Unbound, and his point is, and I believe this, that there is sort of an arms race in higher education where everybody’s on the trajectory to try to become Harvard. And I do think that’s something we have to be very careful about. When I was a college president, we would have potential donors on campus and almost inevitably, they’d ask, “do you think someday you could be a four-year college?” And my answer was, “No, we have a much more important mission than that.”

Higher education is creating problems for itself by saying we need more, we need more buildings, we need more this. As a result, we need more tuition. And so what’s happened in the United States is more students from low income and working class families are going to community colleges. I hope that community colleges don’t buy into that and become part of the problem by trying to be more like others. We need to be more like us.

The other thing I worry about that I don’t think people see is, you know this whole “college for all” debate. I think that, if you look at all the data and all the trends, we need as many students as possible succeeding beyond high school, whether that’s a welding certification or an EMT licensure, or transfer to a four-year college.

JS: That leads us to one of the current policy proposals before the North Carolina legislature: preventing unnecessary building through funding year-round community colleges. 

SR: That can be a game-changer, and it’s a no-brainer. There are four really good reasons to do this, beyond the lower capital spending due to year-round utilization of buildings.

  1. With the North Carolina economy picking up, our employers really need people coming out of community colleges so we need to be in full-time production.
  2. Summer melt. When students aren’t there, they don’t complete their programs. There is also a loss of knowledge when you are out for three months. And our average student is 28, so they aren’t looking to go home and be lifeguards for the summer. They’re trying to get to the workplace, they’re trying to get to the university as quickly as they can.
  3. The issue of faculty salaries. It’s one thing to pay you poorly for 12 months work, but when we can only pay you poorly for nine months work, that makes it even worse. So having more of our faculty work year-round is better for them financially.
  4. From a budget perspective. If you’re a university student, and you can go in the summer and pick up some credits, it’s going to cost the state a third of what it will cost at a university. It’s a good budget deal for the state, and the students can pay lower tuition for some credits and get into the workforce faster.

To do this, we need a big change at the federal level. It makes no sense that Pell Grants are not year-round. Two-thirds of college students today are non-traditional: they are looking to finish their degrees, so why do we live in the traditional fall-spring world?

JS: Another area with possible legislative action is remediation. Let’s talk about the two bills that were introduced. One of them is double-billing [Senate Bill 523] in which K-12 school districts would be forced to reimburse community colleges for remedial education costs for their graduates. That isn’t making it through.

SR: That’s mostly because of the other bill that’s out there.

Let’s step back and talk about remediation. The reason why we now call it developmental education is because two-thirds of the students that are in those programs are not, in our terms, being remediated. They’re the students who are older, they’ve been out of school for a while, so they’re going for the purpose of relearning.

I don’t want to blame the public schools so much because they were very involved in saying, “Look we have an issue, let’s figure out how to address this.”

One issue is that public schools have always had one definition of success, and we had another definition of success. Our definition was national tests that had cut-off scores. For years, students came out of the public schools assuming they were college ready, then we would give them tests that weren’t really matched up well with what they had learned and we put them in remediation programs. We needed to look at the situation more closely. If we were a business and you had somebody whose supply to the next supplier was off the mark every time, you say, “let’s look at our measuring sticks.”

We did that and we’ve worked to align our assessment with the public schools. We changed our own measures. We had colleges nominate math and English faculty and then for six months we got them together. They said, “rather than using some national test, here are the competencies that you need.” They also figured out that we were overlapping in teaching some 30 percent so we could shorten remedial courses, in a more modular way, particularly for math.

Now, our “multiple measures” will be built into the public K-12 schools’ definitions for college readiness. Because we’ve already made these moves, last year, for the first time for many years, developmental education dropped to seven percent [of all credit hours enrolled]. Over the previous decade, our enrollment in developmental education always fluctuated between 11 and 13 percent.

So we’re seeing some positive signs, but it’s still too early to tell. But all this change created a $15 million differential, and Governor McCrory has championed our notion of using that “developmental dividend” to invest that in technical education.

One of the things we had not yet done yet is what Senator Chad Barefoot’s bill [the second of the two bills: Senate Bill 561] proposes. It calls for us to remediate in 12th grade rather than waiting for you to get to college, given that we can tell if you’re college-ready coming out of 11th grade.

That’s what Tennessee is doing with their Tennessee Sells program and that’s the next big step for us. This bill requires us to study and implement this in a year, and the public schools are in support of this.

JS: Let’s talk about the articulation agreement that’s the interface with the other public education system—the state universities. When I went from a suburban community college to a four-year public college, there seemed to be a big bump up in what was required of me, especially in math. Is that something you’re dealing with? 

SR: We worked for years under this notion that we had this wonderful articulation agreement. As a result, we didn’t have enough of those kinds of conversations making sure our courses are aligned with the university system’s over a period of years. We left them alone too much.

One of the things that caused us to look at this was that we were hearing anecdotally that some community college students weren’t performing at college levels, which led to the need to ask questions. I asked, “what are they taking?” And it would turn out that a lot of the students who transferred had never taken math or English with us but they transferred anyway. Or they had taken just a basket of random credits and then transferred. And we had always assumed that our students generally transferred with an associate’s degree or under the articulation agreement.

The truth was, only 15 percent of all the students who transferred to the universities from us reached the articulation threshold of 44 hours [when community college credits are automatically counted as part of the transfer]. And much of the time, they got credit for their courses, but they would go in an elective bucket of credits where you can only count so many of those.

That’s what led us to these big sweeping changes in the articulation agreement because what the research clearly shows is that much of the success for community college students moving to universities is having your credits transfer.

JS: What about competency-based education? 

SR: There is considerable discussion about defining courses and defining credit based on competencies that are achieved, not the standard seat–time measures.

I think all higher ed is looking to move in that direction. Some more than others. Some subjects lend themselves to that more than others. Technical education lends itself more to competency-based, math lends itself more to competency, but I think all higher ed is involved and moving towards discussion.

JS: Let’s touch on your relations with industry. How does it work?

SR: One of North Carolina’s great economic incentives that was actually created here and is now, in some form or fashion, used by all states is the notion of using job training as an economic incentive. Part of what created us was [former governor] Luther Hodges’s notion that, to diversify the economy, we had to guarantee that if folks brought jobs here, we would train for those jobs by creating the first customized training program in the country. Most other states, they’re not operated through community colleges; sometimes they’re just grant programs.

In North Carolina, we have a special program called Customized Training that works with a lot of our companies. If a company makes a commitment to create jobs here, then we provide funds to the local colleges to create customized programs for them.

I hope this type of incentive doesn’t change. But, you have to keep in mind that people think differently, and we’re having an economic incentive debate in the General Assembly right now.

JS: One more bill deals with audit accountability for enrollment funding.

SR: We’re on a time-based form of reimbursement, and so we need an accountability system. We do program audits to make sure that we’re being reimbursed properly for our instruction time.

That program could go away this legislative session [it will expire unless explicitly funded for the future.] I am in favor of continuing this system since we’re such a time-based system. We’re not like other systems where your funding is just based on credit hours, but in a program like the cosmetology program or continuing education, those courses are based on numbers of hours spent in the classroom. Students are required to spend a certain amount of time in the course to get reimbursed for grants.

As long as you’re being reimbursed in such a time-based manner, you need to have an accountability system. We tried to change it to make it better, our presidents have endorsed the changes that we proposed, but that system is at threat if not funded. That worries me.

JS: What would be the repercussions of having no accountability system? 

SR: Then you’re on the honor system. It’s not that we’re not honorable folks, but you need to have these checks and balances. If we were not such a time-based system, it would not be as necessary, but given that we are, we need it.