Stith: “The Best Community College System in the Country”

In the past year, the North Carolina Community College system said goodbye to one president and gained another. After former president Peter Hans took up his new role as the head of the University of North Carolina system, the community college system began its search for a new leader. 

In December 2020, Thomas Stith was elected to be that new leader. Stith officially began his work as the community college system president on January 11. 

In March, president Stith spoke with the Martin Center about his vision and goals for the community college system. The transcription has been edited for clarity and length.

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

A couple of things come to mind, first and foremost to make sure I’m clearly articulating my vision for the North Carolina Community College system—and it’s really centered around three key points: First, to ensure that the North Carolina Community College system is viewed as the first choice for affordable and accessible education. If you look at the depth and breadth of the educational opportunities within the community college system, while we have a strong educational ecosystem in the state, I really believe, whether it’s a newly minted high school student, or a displaced worker that is looking for retraining, or someone that’s trying to excel in their career, that the North Carolina Community College system provides that first choice option and is accessible and affordable. 

Secondly, to continue, as we’ve done throughout our history to serve as that entity to lead in economic development and economic expansion, as we continue to open our economy, post-pandemic and as we work through the current state of the pandemic, I really believe that the community college system will be on the leading edge of not only our recovery but that economic growth. 

And the third point would be to lead and set the standard, not only within the state but nationally, for diversity and inclusion. If you look at North Carolina and as a North Carolina native, I appreciate the diversity of our state from Manteo to Murphy, and that is our strength. And so we want to make sure that we’re utilizing that diversity across our state, the citizens of our state, and have that as a foundational principle as we move forward as a system. 

Next, it would certainly be: how do you accomplish all that? [We do that by] ensuring that we have the proper resources moving forward. So we are very engaged with our current legislative session. We have some very key legislative requests that we think are going to be very critical to the operation of the community college system. In no particular order, but we think first it’s very important to ensure that we have the proper funding for our campus faculty and staff, to be competitive and to not only recruit, but retain the excellent talent on our campuses. 

We think now’s the time to at least have a 5 percent increase in staff salaries. Right now we’re 41st in the country. And I’ll repeat that: 41st in the country. We have the third largest community college system in the country; I submit to you we are the number one community college system in the country, and we need to ensure that we are retaining and attracting faculty and staff.

Because of the impact of the pandemic, it’s going to be important also to have a budget stabilization fund. We are ensuring that our colleges are utilizing federal recovery dollars, but we want to ensure that if there are gaps in that funding, that we have state dollars that will go in after federal funds have been expended to ensure that we are properly positioned to serve our role as we recover and grow our economy. 

We have a key initiative around IT modernization, to ensure that our 58 colleges have a shared system for their IT needs—whether it’s HR or student records— to ensure we’re operating as an efficient system. And so funding [is needed] to complete that.

And also, unfortunately, our community colleges have been subject to cyber security attacks and ransomware. And so we have an additional request that would begin to continue our focus on ensuring that we have a safe and secure IT system. 

We have one of our community colleges that has reached the statutory number of enrollment for a “multi-campus site,” so we want to ensure that it’s funded. And we know there are discussions in the legislature this year around capital; we’ve identified over $2 billion of capital needs within the 58 community colleges. Half a billion of that is repair and renovation so we’re going to be very engaged as those conversations develop. 

And then finally, ensuring that we have a strong team here at the system office as we move forward. When I joined the system office staff on January 11, we had great individuals in place, we’ve had opportunities to strengthen that team over the last few weeks, and we’ll continue to build the team that will lead the system forward. 

Those are some of the key areas that I’m focusing on as I begin to lead, as I said, the best community college system in the country.

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?  

Certainly graduation rates are part of that equation. But I think it’s very key to look at what we also include in “success”: how are [students] placed with a job or an opportunity once they’ve pursued their two-year degree? They may utilize that [degree] or they may go on to a four-year college experience, that would be a measurement as well. 

Are they able to receive a two-year degree or short-term workforce training? A displaced worker [may not] have the time for a two-year experience, they need an opportunity now. So, what is the success of our short-term training? We’ve seen that be very successful for individuals that need that retraining, that may have been displaced because of the pandemic or other economic impacts, and have been able to take advantage of that. So, while graduation rates are part of it, certainly those other areas are very critical to the students that we serve.

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

We’ve seen nationally an impact on enrollment with community college systems in general, a little over 10 percent nationally. We’ve seen the same effect here in North Carolina— fortunately, not as significant as the national level. We measure by budget FTEs— they are gross numbers. Budget FTEs are down about 7 percent, and we have seen, specifically in some of the demographic areas of our students, African American males, Hispanic males, are significantly down from an enrollment perspective. 

There are impacts in enrollment across our system. This economic crisis has been different; it is a global pandemic. Typically when you have an economic shock to your system, you will see the enrollment increase in our community college system because of the displacement of workers— this is very different. No one has experienced, at least in our lifetime, a global pandemic of this nature, so we’re seeing different enrollment trends and we have been impacted. We’ve been very strategic: we’ve remained open, our campuses have done so throughout the pandemic with online [and] in person classes—instituting proper safety protocols. 

We certainly are not considering consolidation— on your last point. The integrity of the 58 colleges throughout the state is very important, not only from an educational point of view in those communities, but [as] an economic engine as well. What we’re looking at are efficiencies. We think the integrity of the 58 college member system needs to remain intact, but we also are looking at efficiencies to ensure that we’re operating in a fiscally responsible manner.

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

Certainly, and we’ve seen tremendous success with our apprenticeship program over the last two to three years. We’ve seen an 80 percent increase in the utilization of the apprenticeship program. That is not achieved by chance; that’s achieved by strong relationships with industry, identifying those areas that are more applicable for apprenticeship opportunities. 

And so we anticipate the continued expansion of the apprenticeship program, and also career and technical [education]. And also not only focusing on high school graduates, but individuals and students that are currently in high school. So, focusing on our youth; making sure they have access, early within their high school careers. We think that’s going to provide a very strong pathway to career success.

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?

That’s very important and I’m sure you’re aware of the work that My FutureNC has done in the need, by 2020, to increase either credentialing or degrees by two million individuals. We’re very involved with that effort.

Again, within our curriculum, we’re embedding the requirements that we have discussed with industry around credentialing or certifications. The community college system firmly believes [that] if we’re going to reach our goal by 2030, it will be the current community college system producing the majority of those individuals with that credentialing that will be necessary to have the proper workforce. So we’re very focused on that and working with all partners to ensure that we achieve that goal, there’s a stake. 

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 believe at the community college system that that’s going to only increase. As I mentioned earlier, our focus [is] on being the first choice with accessible, affordable education. But [dual enrollment] provides an even brighter light on that concept because, as a high school student, you’re able to pursue college-level courses at no cost. And those courses will count as you continue with your educational career. 

So, certainly given the increasing costs of higher education, [dual enrollment] provides a pathway to receive those classes, and to achieve educational success at a much reduced cost. I believe we’ll continue to see growth in dual enrollment. 

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

It is constantly changing, we’re literally in discussions now because we’ve identified eight to ten high-growth high-income industries—everything from healthcare to HVAC to construction to IT. We have a plethora of opportunities within the system. But we know with the impact of the global pandemic, we’re going to have to be very flexible and it’s going to be extremely important to enhance our engagement with business and industry to ensure that we are up to date, and current and flexible with the offerings that we have within the community college system. Again, the front line educational source in North Carolina, that engagement with industry is going to be critical now as we move forward, as our economy opens, and grows.

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

We are very efficient and focused on our two-year associate’s degrees: we have workforce training, short-term workforce training. Our strategy is, as I say to the team: “play to our strengths.” And [those programs] are our strengths: offering that two-year associates, offering a pathway to those individuals that may want to continue to a four-year, being very responsive to industry, in particular with our short-term workforce training, so that we can turn around significant workforce supply for industry. Our role is to continue to do that and do that in an efficient and effective manner.

The UNC system recently adopted a policy to implement a common course numbering system so that students don’t lose credits when transferring between institutions. Students who transfer from community colleges to a UNC school typically don’t experience this problem because of the comprehensive articulation agreement that exists between the CC and UNC systems. But there are still community college students, particularly those without an associates degree or those with a workforce associate, who lose credits after they transfer. Are there any plans to address this issue? 

We will continue to work [on that issue]. From a system-to-system perspective, we’re going to continue to enhance our efforts to ensure that no credits are wasted or lost, and that [students] have the benefit of having that pathway from the community college system, if they choose to go on to the university system. 

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 that’s a very interesting comment from my colleagues at the UNC system, so we won’t debate that. But what I will say is, our graduates are outstanding. We have an open door policy, we take individuals where they are, and work with them to achieve their highest level of achievement, and we’re doing that. 

As I go to classrooms across the state, I see four-year degree and our university graduates attending community college as they want to either enhance their career, or retool their career. We are always looking at continuous improvement within the community college system. But as I go to classes that are working with our veterans, as they transition and and go into fields such as IT; as I look at newly minted high school graduates, and they enter either EMS courses or nursing courses—Again, I’ll say that the North Carolina Community College system bar none is the leading system in not only North Carolina, but in the country. And so we will continue to have that continuous improvement and commitment to excellence.

The pandemic has disrupted nearly every aspect of higher education, including community colleges. What are the biggest challenges posed by COVID going forward?

Well, as I mentioned, the community college system never closed during the pandemic, we had to be very flexible. Particularly in our rural areas, we were able to utilize funding or recovery funding to expand broadband—we had access issues, particularly in rural community colleges. 

So we’ve been flexible and remained open throughout the pandemic. As we look forward, [there] will be [an] additional return to campus instruction and enhancing that. As I said, I just attended a community college this week with a class full of students properly social-distanced and [with] proper safety precautions [in place]. But we know that will be expanding as we move forward through recovery. [We’ll focus] on enhancing enrollment. As I mentioned, this economic shock has been different than historic ones, so we are doing outreach efforts to enhance [enrollment]. 

We also know that there’s been job displacement during this pandemic, and our short-term worker retraining or full associates will be in very high demand. So as we look at the challenge of coming out of COVID and the impact, we know that we will face the increased challenge of enhancing that enrollment and being prepared for that influx of students as they look to enhance their academic roundness and be prepared for opportunities that exist in the economy.