Community colleges in North Carolina serve an important role in reaching a postsecondary attainment goal. We spoke with Peter Hans, President of the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS), to learn more about what makes community colleges unique and ways in which ongoing partnerships with the business community support the workforce in North Carolina.
Q: Participation in postsecondary education is one way we can ensure that all North Carolinians have the opportunity to earn a degree or credential leading to a living wage. What are some similarities and differences in the roles community colleges and four-year colleges and universities play in degree and credential attainment?
Both offer academic degrees and paths to achieving educational goals. We have agreements with the UNC System and NC Independent Colleges and Universities to streamline the transfer process and make it as seamless as possible for students to transfer to a four-year program. Students pursuing a four-year degree that start at community college become well prepared for success and save tens of thousands of dollars along the way.
A unique feature of community colleges is access to a wide variety of short-term education programs leading to industry-recognized credentials. We help students develop skills that are in high demand across different sectors, including advanced manufacturing, construction, energy, health care, hospitality, information technology, logistics, and public safety.
A key difference of community colleges is that every community college has an open-door policy. We accept all learners. We have programs to help people earn a high school diploma, shore up skills in English and math, and prepare for additional postsecondary studies. Community Colleges are crucial to improving students’ economic mobility. Many people don’t realize our 58 community colleges serve more than 700,000 North Carolinians a year.
Q: How does the NCCCS work with businesses to ensure that we have a skilled workforce ready to meet the needs of the business sector?
Community colleges are essential to moving North Carolina’s economy forward, and we have no stronger partner in that mission than the business community. They rely on community college students acquiring the skills and knowledge they need to launch successful careers.
We also offer customized training for new and existing businesses in a wide variety of industries. Last year, North Carolina community colleges trained 37,000 employees for 1,000 companies. The Secretary of Commerce calls that the most valuable economic development incentive North Carolina offers to companies looking to locate or expand their operations in the state.
Responding and listening is essential, so we have formed partnerships with statewide industry associations to address skills gaps, continuously align curriculum to industry needs, and develop other solutions driven by business. Another focus is on career exploration, where students can apply academic and technical skills in real-life settings. One great – and growing – example of work-based learning is the state’s registered apprenticeship program, ApprenticeshipNC.
Q: What are some of the challenges unique to community college students, and how does the NCCCS work to support students?
Many community college students are of modest means and are often first-generation college-goers. They tend to be older, and many are juggling work and family responsibilities along with college. Our 58 community colleges offer various support services to students, including academic advising, career counseling, financial aid guidance, plus counseling and disability services to special populations. Given our student profile, there is more innovative and sustained work to be done in this area to boost our completion rates.
With federal funds allocated by Gov. Roy Cooper, colleges and workforce development boards recently launched the Finish Line Grants to help students complete their education when facing unforeseen hardships. These grants can be used for course materials, housing, medical needs, dependent care or other financial emergencies that students face through no fault of their own. The grants are helping students stay on track to complete their studies. Additionally, the General Assembly recently provided funds for a similar effort to help students affected by Hurricane Florence.
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President, North Carolina Community College System