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Community colleges face challenges

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The state community college system will be key to North Carolina’s economic transition, yet the system needs help from the state, a new study says.

In the report, the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research and Scott Ralls, the new president of the community college system, identify the “brutal facts” community colleges face.

“We’re moving away from the old economy of tobacco, textiles, and furniture and toward a new economy of pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, biotechnology, banking and financial services, and others,” Ran Coble, director of the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, says in a statement.

“Community colleges are the educational system that is most key to navigating this economic transition, as well as dealing with work force shortages and job training – and retraining,” he says.

To fulfill this role, the study says, the system must better address the needs of older, “nontraditional” students, who make up eight of 10 of community-college students in the U.S.

Over half these students study part-time and work more than 20 hours a week, often in addition to juggling children and long commutes.

African-American males, who make up 8 percent of the student population at North Carolina community colleges, must be reached in larger numbers, the study says.

The percentage of students who enroll but do not complete their degrees is rising across the state, even as national rates drop.

The financial pressure to take a job, as well as the lack of academic preparation and financial aid, which often isn’t enough to cover the expenses of an older student with dependents, have aggravated this trend, the study says.

Work-force shortages in sectors like teaching, nursing, trucking and biotechnology are growing with the state’s population, and to fill those gaps, community colleges will need to increase their graduates by 75 percent, or 19,000 students, by 2016, the study says.

Asian and Hispanic immigrants, the state’s fastest-growing populations, could shore up the deficit, yet immigrants’ access to community college has become a “hot political issue,” the report says.

Following a months-long controversy, Ralls recently prohibited all state community colleges from admitting undocumented students, including the children of illegal immigrants, to degree programs, a policy that is among the most restrictive in the U.S.

The report does not make a recommendation on this issue.

“One hundred twelve students out of 297,000 – that’s not a major policy decision for the state, in some ways,” says Coble.

But the funds to address the problems identified in the report are lacking, the study says.

The center urges the state to develop a recession-proof funding formula. Community-college funding is allocated based on the prior year’s enrollment, but the student population often grows quickly in economic downturns, as workers seek retraining.

The study also says equipment funding should increase, as should faculty salaries, which at $41,000 are lower than that of public-school teachers, with North Carolina ranking 46th among community college systems in the U.S.

Funding for higher-cost, higher-demand programs should be differentiated from those that are less popular and less expensive, and funding for student services such as academic counseling, tutoring, financial aid and child-care services, should be increased, the report says.

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