North Carolina's 58 community colleges are the red-headed stepchildren of our education system. They are nationally recognized for both the quality of education, variety of offerings, career training and supplemental courses they offer. But in North Carolina, our community colleges have never gotten the credit nor the funding they deserve to be even more effective.
The numbers prove my point. In 2021, the 16 institutions in the University of North Carolina System enrolled 244,508 students and the state appropriated $2.9 billion for them. In 2022, the 58 community colleges of North Carolina had an enrollment of 575,000 students, yet the state appropriation was only $1.34 billion. 50 percent of community college students are over 25 years old and a large percentage have jobs to help pay tuitions and support their families.
Why are our community colleges the Rodney Dangerfield of education? A good friend explains it by saying that universities provide the "big shrimp,"
luxury box invitations and obeisance lawmakers receive at football, basketball, baseball and other events. There's something to that, but an even bigger reason is because of the way North Carolina has structured our community college governance system.
North Carolina's community college governance is both its biggest asset and biggest disadvantage. When our system was created, back in the 1960s, state leaders wanted community colleges to be close to the people they served and wanted local leaders to have input into each college's leadership, course offerings and controls. While we have a state system president and state community college board that sets broad policies and standards, the real control resides with each local board. Former state community college presidents will tell you they often felt like "toothless tigers,"
with nowhere near the authority of our university system president. The system was designed and operates as a decentralized governance structure.
Senator Amy Galey, from Alamance County, says the current structure needs changing, calling it "muddled"
and a "kind of feudal system we have, where you have community colleges that too often operate independently of one another."
She has introduced Senate Bill 692 that would change make revolutionary changes. It would begin by reducing the number of State Community College Board members from 22 down to 18. All 18 members would be named by the legislature, removing the 10 appointments the governor currently has, as well as the provision that requires geographic diversity among six regions of the state. The Lieutenant Governor, State Treasurer and Labor Commissioner, currently all statewide elected ex-officio members of the state board, would be removed in 2027.
Under this legislation each of the 58 colleges would find their local board structure dramatically changed. Local school boards would lose their ability to appoint four members each and again, the governor would lose authority to appoint four members to local boards. The remaining eight appointments would then be assumed by the legislature. County Commissioners would have the remaining four seats, highly problematic because some colleges have branches in several counties. Lawmakers would name most board members.
Further, this sweeping power grab would remove the authority of the state board to name the state president. You guessed it, the legislature would choose the state president, whose powers would be increased to include having authority to fire local college CEOs.
Here's my spin: If these proposals become law it will be a rape of our community colleges!
These 58 schools deserve greater appreciation for the role they play. Many students graduate high school; many others earn their first two years toward four-year degrees. They can live at home and tuitions are considerably less, then matriculate (if they wish) to a four-year institution. Increasingly large numbers are finding they don't need four-year degrees to earn a good living and can get the training they need at these colleges. Additionally, with job requirements, advanced manufacturing and artificial intelligence changing at a rapid rate the role of job retraining is essential. In short, our 58 colleges are providing accessible post-secondary educational and job training to suit 21st century demands. They deserve more funding and higher status.
There is little question that the governance and structure of our community college system needs to be reviewed and revamped. The state president and state board need more authority, but we MUST continue to encourage strong local input and ability to meet local needs. Senate Bill 692 is an insult and nothing more than a legislative power grab. It must be defeated.
Truthfully, we need a top to bottom review of education in this state, especially regarding the governance structure of our three entities, but such a review must include many voices, not just a handful of legislators from one political party.
We deserve better. Five former governors, Republicans and Democrats, agree this action is dangerous and have publicly spoken out against the proposals. Time will tell whether their letter has any effect, but every citizen in our state should be aware of their experienced opposition.
This is no time for silence. Let your lawmaker hear from you now.
Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina Broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. He recently retired from writing, producing and moderating the statewide half-hour TV program NC SPIN that aired 22 1/2 years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.