Man in the Middle

Community colleges are the unheralded linchpins at the center of state educational systems. They get less funding than K-12 schools and universities, but are expected to correct the failures of the former through remedial education and uphold the academic standards of the latter for transfer students. And, if those tasks weren’t enough, they must respond in nimble fashion to the needs of the economy for vocational training.

Not only are all 58 of its colleges open to students of all ages and educational backgrounds, they are also located throughout the state—ranging from dense urban areas to sparsely populated rural areas.

The community college system’s newly elected president, Peter Hans, comes to the table with considerable experience in higher education and is deeply familiar with the challenges that North Carolina’s community colleges face. In 1997, he was elected to the State Board of Community Colleges for a six-year term. There, he served as Vice Chair of the Board and the Chair of the Policy Committee.

Hans also served several terms as a board member on the University of North Carolina System Board of Governors, where he was elected chair from 2012 to 2014. He played a central role in improving collaboration between the community college and university systems. He received an award for that effort in 2014.

From 2016-2018, Hans advised UNC System President Margaret Spellings on issues related to technology, healthcare, strategic planning, and K-12 education. He has also been a policy advisor for several congressmen. Hans, along with former Lieutenant Governor Dennis Wicker, built a government relations practice at several regional law firms—counseling private-sector companies on public affairs. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from UNC-Chapel Hill and a Master of Liberal Arts in Extension Studies from Harvard University. The Martin Center sat down with Hans to discuss his vision and goals for the community college system.

What are your top priorities for your first year as NCCCS president?

I don’t know if I’m thinking so much in terms of “first year,” because so much of our work will unfold over time. I don’t want to create an artificial construct, in that sense. Dr. Dallas Herring, who is considered the founder and the father of the community college system, from a philosophical point of view, had the right approach, which is: we must meet people where they are, and carry them as far as they can go. I think that remains the community college’s vision. We’ll also want to better align our programs with labor market demands, as well as improve post-secondary student outcomes.

There are so many challenges and opportunities that it’s going to take a little bit more than a year to see these things through successfully. My hope is to do the foundational aspects really well, and see that through and commit to it over an extended period of time. I think that will yield the best results.

We’ve seen that measuring student success in terms of graduation rates doesn’t provide the full picture of what community college has to offer. What’s a better way to measure the success of North Carolina’s community colleges?  

Your question is on target in my opinion because there are limitations to the data about degree completion from community colleges. A lot of our students transfer to other institutions, and that’s not necessarily accounted for. A lot of our students run into life and don’t have the supports services around them in terms of childcare, healthcare, transportation, emergency financial assistance, etc., to help them through the bumps so that they can stay on course. Consequently, we run into a challenge with measuring “success.” For example, somebody enrolls in a workforce-training program, and they get hired for a job before completing their program—is that success or not success? Arguably, it’s successful: if they land at the job in their chosen field; but it wouldn’t be fully reflected in any measurement because, of course, you want students to fulfill the full course of their study. So that’s a challenge.

Clearly, community colleges need to improve their degree completion rates. There are a number of initiatives underway that I think will be successful over time, including looking at guided pathways to careers—what we’re calling the “Rise” program, which is a co-requisite model for developmental education students. Initiatives like that will help, over time, improve our completion rates. But it’s going to take awhile; while we’re considered two-year institutions, very few of our students are able to graduate in two years—for a variety of reasons, they’re mostly part-time. So, we need to support them throughout the duration of their time with us.

Are there any specific colleges where enrollments have been down? Is there any plan to consolidate under-enrolled colleges in rural towns?

The idea has surfaced periodically. I can understand the thought process, but it’s important to understand that in the struggling areas, the community college is a source of pride and hope for those communities. I think the better approach would be to ask: how do we lift them up, given the challenges they are facing? Those areas need a strong community college as much, if not more, than everywhere else. The community colleges are the education infrastructure for bridging the urban-rural divide in so many ways.

I do believe there are opportunities for additional regional collaboration between colleges, particularly procurement mechanisms. Because if we could free up administrative dollars to support highly relevant programs and services for those areas, that would be a really good way to help them improve their enrollment.

Community colleges play an important role in workforce development; Are there any plans to expand and improve career and technical education? 

Absolutely. And I’m pleased to say that the new state budget for the coming fiscal year provided nearly $15 million in new funding for short-term workforce training which was the state board of community college’s number one priority for the legislative session, because we clearly hear from employers about a “skills-gap”—that they’re struggling to find workers. Community colleges really ought to be the mechanism to address those concerns. The investment that the state is making in the short-term workforce training programs will go a long way towards a funding parity between our curriculum and continuing education programs—which will provide additional incentives for our colleges to focus on those programs to the benefit of students and businesses alike.

Tell us a little bit about industry credentials, and what’s the community colleges’ relationship like with the industries that are part of this credentialing system?

The relationship is very good. I think those industry credentials are highly valuable programs because if students are able to obtain them, they’re very likely to land a job quickly. And that may be undervalued in some quarters, but it’s essential if we’re going to respond to what is essentially an economy in a permanent state of disruption. There is a need for training, and retraining, lifelong learning, people starting new careers, and the addition of new skills—all of that is only going to increase in importance in the future, particularly if half of the predictions about artificial intelligence are true. I think the action is going to be in the partnership between the community colleges and the business community.

Some students start technical training or their academic studies while in high school through the Career and Technical Education or Career and College Promise Pathways. What do you think is the future of dual enrollment?

We have, I’m told, 40,000 high school students now enrolled in Community College programs, which I think is great. I think that provides a lot of opportunities for those high school students to achieve greater exposure to college level course work—whether they’re on a college path or if they’re on the more work-based, career-oriented path. I’d like to see those programs expand over time. My sense is: the more awareness there is of those opportunities, the more enrollment will grow.

Has there been some friction with the K-12 system over how dual-enrollment programs get implemented?

I wish I could speak to that with a little bit more knowledge. I think that was the case, but I think less so now that we have 4 or 5 years worth under our belt. And the public school partners who understand that dual enrollment programs are supplementing and improving the offerings for their students, I think welcome it. But there are always more opportunities to deepen the partnership. Superintendent Mark Johnson clearly understands the benefit of dual enrollment. We’re planning to meet once the legislative session concludes. And I’ll bring up that issue and a few others where, again, greater alignment is possible.

How does the system plan on keeping up with changes in the labor market? 

We monitor it very closely. I think you can see our most successful community colleges are those who are well aligned with the labor market in the business community, where communication and dialogue are occurring, where our colleges are offering highly relevant programs to students. All of that has supported enrollment. Staying close to the changes can be a challenge; again, given that the economy is shifting so quickly, we need to be nimble. I like to think of community colleges as speedboats among the education sectors, rather than the battleships. We might not be as big and as powerful, but we do have agility, and we need to be responsive and I think we are to a large extent. But there’s always room for improvement.

One challenge we have of course is that community college enrollment is counter cyclical to the economy: the economy goes up, enrollment goes down; the economy goes down, our enrollment goes up. We’re funded in arrears, based on last year’s enrollment, which is understandable because we’re an open enrollment institution. But, when a community college sees an opportunity to offer courses in a high-demand area that it might not already provide, they have to figure out how to boot strap the startup funds to offer those classes—as well as put it together and be as quick to market it as possible. That’s something we’d like to discuss with policymakers over time. I think there’s a chance for us to be more responsive to labor market needs, if some smart people could figure out exactly the funding model to do so.

We know that there is a constant need for K-12 educators—how is it at the community college level? What is the demand for community college instructors?

This is a little bit of an under-covered story, so I’m pleased that you’ve asked the question. Our professionals are under paid, I believe, relative to the value that they’re providing. Although there is less attention given to this subject, we lose people to the public schools and other public sector opportunities, in addition to the private sector. And it’s in tension with our mission as an open enrollment institution. Take allied health fields, for example: we could educate and train more nurses, but we can’t offer as many nursing classes as we would like because we can’t hire the instructors. And so there are actually limits to enrollment in a number of those fields, which is unfortunate because we hear that the hospitals want to hire more nurses. With the aging population, you only see more demand for nursing—in rural health care in particular. We’re the best chance to train nurses and keep them in those rural communities. So, I’m going to try to figure out the best method to shine a light on this challenge. The recent state budget did provide a two percent increase in our employee salaries, for which we’re grateful, but it’s something I’m going to be spending some time on in the future.

What about those seeking positions at four-year institutions? There are more people with PhDs now than available academic positions. Do you foresee a greater number of PhDs looking for employment at community colleges?  

Well, I hope so. A well-educated faculty would be a benefit to us. It’s interesting on the broader question of: are we training too many doctoral students? I think it is a fair question to ask. Particularly when there are so many high-paying trade jobs that go unfilled. That’s not to suggest that somebody training for a doctorate in literature would necessarily go into a trade job. I would love to see more PhD graduates teaching at community colleges. But I’d also like to see more career exploration for middle and high schools students so that they understand fully the opportunities and the limitations of various paths.

There tends to be a special status attached to four-year institutions and advanced degrees, which I understand—I’m a holder of those myself. But it shouldn’t come at the cost of undercutting the value of other career opportunities, which I think, unfortunately, has been the case. We’ve done a disservice to many by suggesting that it’s four-year institution or bust. In addition to the career opportunities, attending a community college on a college transfer path is a very accessible, flexible, and affordable option for many. They can do so with lower costs to themselves and to the state. They can also get a better sense of whether college is for them, or whether they are prepared to be successful on that path.

Do you think that there are any programs that should be dropped or added?

We analyze this regularly in order to understand, based on enrollment numbers, what’s in demand that we’re not offering. We also look at those classes and courses that are not attracting significant demand, and evaluate whether we should close them and move on to something where there is a need. I think that’s just good governance—both at the college level and the system level—to make sure that all community college offerings are highly relevant. So many people think of community colleges in practical, pragmatic terms, and I think if we’re going to be responsive, if we’re going to be on point, we have to do exactly that.

But I’d also argue that we’re much more than a utilitarian outlet, that we’re changing more lives than people realize with 700,000 people coming in and out the door every year. Think about that: 700,000 North Carolinians every year attending community colleges. Unless we’re offering courses and classes that are of great use to them, that will reflect back on us.

Many view the existence of remedial courses as a failure of the K-12 system; an education system that graduates students without the basic skills needed to succeed in a college-level class. Are there any plans to address this shortcoming on the part of K-12? 

I’d hesitate to speak for our public school partners on that front. I do think that the need for remedial courses has declined somewhat. But, that having been said, that could partially be a reflection of enrollment. If you have higher enrollment, you’re likely to find more students who do need a little extra help and the public schools, just like the community colleges, as open enrollment institutions, have a challenge in that: we’re taking everybody who comes through the door, and happily so, because we want to provide that next rung on the ladder for all those who enter and want to improve their lives and provide for their families, pursue careers, and education.

But with that come, as I mentioned before, challenges for our students; trying to balance school with work in most cases, possibly family, life. We have a number of students working through poverty, trauma, mental health challenges, etc. As an open enrollment institution, we’re taking everybody and we want to meet them where they are and take them as far as they can go.

The academic quality of community colleges in North Carolina is varied. And you hear it from people at UNC who see transfers coming in and say “some of these students are great: they graduate at higher rates than our own students, but some of them have a long way to go to really be ready.” What are the plans to improve academic quality so that it can be the best of what the community college system offers?

I think it largely reflects the prosperous areas of our state versus those areas that are struggling. The question for us is: how do you lift up those areas that need help? And I don’t know that I’ve unlocked the key to that question, because it would be really unfortunate, really tragic, if your life opportunities boiled down to where you’re born. And I think that is a very troubling reality that we face. I’d like to see an approach that involved, not just the community colleges, but also the public schools, the universities, the independent colleges and universities, private schools, charter schools, in addition to the business community and the philanthropic community, to take on this question because it is going to require a very broad-based solution. We are a key, a central part of that solution. The rural-urban divide is in many ways, for North Carolina, the most urgent matter of the day.

 Are there plans for more 4-year programs within the community college system?

That has been discussed in the past, but there is no consensus on moving forward. I can understand the arguments made in favor of such an approach, but, personally, I’d be reluctant for us to engage in the arms race of higher education. Instead, I would like to see more collaboration between the community colleges and universities—no surprise given my background with the University that I would feel that way, but I think there’s great untapped potential there. I also think it would likely be the most efficient and effective way of achieving the goals that the proponents of 4-year community college programs desire. I’d like to see us, the community colleges, be more like us rather than be more like 4-year institutions.