The North Carolina State Board of Community Colleges meets in an elegant, wood-paneled room, packed with its 21 members and the students there to report on the triumphs of their education.
At its regular monthly meeting on Friday, April 22, the board ticked through agenda items as normal. Attendees offered applause for Elizabeth Grovenstein, a trim, smiling woman who was stepping down from her position as vice president and chief financial officer at the system office, making her the eighth senior staff member to exit within the previous year. (A ninth has since departed.) The board approved the appointment of an interim president at Johnston Community College after the previous week’s sudden resignation of President David Johnson.
The normalcy of it all is likely because it has become just that—he was the 25th president to leave the system in the last three years.
North Carolina’s community college system is one of the largest in the country, commonly dubbed the “Great 58” for the number of schools it includes. These colleges are essential, many say, to bringing higher education to more North Carolinians. And the state has been working to expand them. In 2017, less than half of adults in the state had a post-secondary degree, while two-thirds of jobs required a degree. So the state laid out a strategic plan detailing how community colleges can bridge that gap and provide the workforce the business, tech, and manufacturing industries need.
These community colleges are also supposed to improve equity in the state, serving 525,000 students—“the top 100 percent,” as Scott Ralls, president of Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, put it. A bipartisan budget invested $1.3 billion per year in the schools last year, the highest appropriation for the system in the past decade.
But the system is facing a particular set of challenges. Since 2010, the system saw a 27 percent decrease in enrollment, with an 11 percent decrease from fall 2019 to fall 2020 alone. While the COVID-fueled drop affected all but four of the state’s schools, the rebound has been slow. As of February, 33 of the 58 colleges reported enrollment growth—but only by an average of 2 percent over the previous year.
Governance challenges have dogged the system. The community colleges are famous—or notorious, depending on who you ask—for granting its 58 individual institutions a remarkable amount of autonomy. The system president and state board have little oversight over the governance of those colleges. Each has its own president, who answers to the more than 700 local trustees governing the schools. But turnover has plagued the system at both levels: There have been six system presidents in as many years, as well as dozens of new college presidents. Half of the state board members and a quarter of employees in the main office have also turned over in the last year.
Morale is low among those left behind. Consultants from the firm CampusWorks, which was hired to assess the system office, presented their findings at the April meeting. Rapid staff turnover and a revolving door in the president’s office, they reported, had left employees “disconnected and unclear about their role.”
The board and President Thomas Stith know that the system is at a crossroads. In March, the board held an hours-long closed session to hammer out five goals, which it then laid out at the April meeting: improve hiring, retention, and morale at the system office; enhance communication between the office and the presidents; address the enrollment decline; cut down on red tape; and devise a plan to support the rural colleges that enrollment decline has most affected.
The board and the president are to discuss the goals at every meeting until they deem them accomplished, said Board Chair Burr Sullivan at the April meeting.
It’s unclear whether the underlying issues stem from bad leadership, bad luck, bad structure, or some combination.
But stakeholders in the system are stressed. “I’ve never seen a more complicated time for us,” said Ralls, who has worked in the system for 20 years.
The North Carolina Community College System was founded in 1963 in an effort to increase literacy and lift the state out of poverty; at the time, North Carolina was the second-poorest in the nation.
The early years of the system were stable, with all 58 colleges founded by 1978. Enrollment ebbed and flowed with the economy, but that is common for community colleges. From 1963 until 2014, the average presidential tenure was nearly seven years; from 2015 until now, no single system president has served more than two years.
“It’s been very difficult. Transitions are just tough,” said Ralls, who was president of the system from 2008 to 2015. He left to take charge of Northern Virginia Community College, where he served as president for nearly four years before returning to lead Wake Tech in 2019.
After Ralls, the system saw a series of presidents arrive and leave in rapid succession. Several were interim. One was, according to some in the system, a bad hire. Another was Peter Hans, who UNC quickly whisked away to lead its system. In early 2021, Stith, a former chief of staff to then-Gov. Pat McCrory, stepped into the presidential seat.
Some in the system attribute the tumult to outside forces like the Great Recession or the pandemic, which has rocked higher education in general.
Others blame Stith for the extreme amount of turnover and the low morale, at least on background.
In January, the board gave Stith his one-year review in a three-and-a-half-hour closed session that one observer described as tense and emotional.
“I won’t get into the details of the personnel review, but we had a robust conversation,” Stith told The Assembly.
At the April meeting, the consultants who reviewed the system office alluded to that disquiet around Stith’s tenure in their public presentation.
“People are asking, ‘Can we count on President Stith to be here?’ I’m just calling it out,” said Liz Murphy, CEO and board chair at CampusWorks. “Stith is making a commitment; he’s taking an interest. But there’s a little apprehension. You have folks who are long-tenured in the system office. And the colleges have gone through quite a long period of time with interim presidencies.”
“My question—and it’s maybe hard and unfair—is that you have a long list of things you want this system to do,” board member Ray Russell, a new appointee who joined in December 2021, pointed to Stith at the meeting. “What I would like to hear at some point is, Who do you want to be as the leader of this system?”
“My focus is on student success,” Stith replied. “As I look at my service as president, that’s what I’m focusing on. Candidly, I’m not measuring that in, Do I make year 5 or year 10? but I’m measuring, How are we impacting on the lives of our students? How are we increasing the stories of impacting their lives, in many cases saving their lives? That’s what I look at. That’s what keeps me going each day.”
Burr Sullivan, the chair of the board and a member for five years, said he believes the role of a community college president is to forge a productive dialogue with all the moving parts of the system. “I think President Stith is trying really hard and getting to know all those 58 presidents,” said Sullivan. “We’ve set goals for him going forward and expect him to work really hard to achieve those goals. Based on his response to his goals on Friday, I am very optimistic that he’ll be able to achieve those goals, with a lot of hard work and a lot of support from his staff.”
Sullivan said he and other board members have “not been happy” about the turnover in the system office, and that “the board has set that expectation in front of the president as clearly as we can.” (Goal No. 1, after all, is retention, hiring, and morale.)
In the past two years, the system office has seen the retirement of Grovenstein and Maureen Little, vice president of economic development. At least nine senior staff have left in the last year alone. Meanwhile, of the 190 employees who work in the state office, 50 are new.
Besides the turnover at the top, since 2019, 24 of the college’s 58 presidents have left their posts, and the 21-person state board saw eight new appointees.
The lack of institutional memory that results from so much turnover is troubling, said Kennon Briggs, a consultant who’s worked with the system in a variety of roles since the 1980s.
“The people going into those roles typically don’t have community college backgrounds,” said Briggs. “If you don’t know what came before you, that’s a problem. I’m not saying be incestuous, but let’s grow our own successors in these roles. You’ve got to mentor them along the way.”
Of the eight employees that have replaced the departing senior staff members, five came from outside the community college system, from places like the General Assembly, the governor’s office, and other state governmental departments.
Then, there’s the enrollment and funding issues.
Although urban schools like Wake Tech and Central Carolina Community College are large—Wake Tech alone works with 70,000 students per year and boasts seven campuses—smaller schools like Pamlico, Edgecombe, and Halifax rely on subsidies from the healthier enrollments of the larger schools in the system.
And enrollment numbers matter when it comes to the fate of these schools. The state calculates most of its community college funding—more than 80 percent—based on a model called full-time equivalents. The more credit hours a student completes, the more state funding a school receives. For example, if a school serves 100 students who each complete 10 credit hours, then the state will pay that school for 1,000 credit hours. If a school serves 20,000 students who each complete 30 credit hours, the state will pay for 600,000 credit hours. This leaves the schools in thrall to the natural fluctuation of enrollment.
What makes enrollment numbers especially worrisome, said Michael Helmick, former president of Western Piedmont Community College, is that more community colleges are now relying on having high school students in classes. Across the state, 68,474 high schoolers took community college courses in the 2020-21 school year, up from 48,000 five years before. The current model means the state pays double for these students: both as K-12 students and simultaneously as community college enrollees.
If the legislature changed course, “that could go away with a pen stroke,” said Helmick. This happened before, during the recession, said Ralls. The legislature proposed taking away dual-enrollment payments, and the system negotiated keeping double payments for students enrolled in STEM fields.
Sullivan said he thinks it’s unlikely that the General Assembly would take away dual enrollment, knowing how it would adversely affect the community college system. But he said declining enrollment is the greatest challenge facing the system, especially in the state’s shrinking rural areas. The population of Halifax County, for example, dropped from more than 54,000 in 2010 to 48,000 in 2020. Enrollment at Halifax Community College dropped from 1,447 in 2009 to fewer than 1,000 in 2019. These rural population drops are slated to continue.
“That is a challenge for us, and we’re going to have to confront it,” said Sullivan.
Last fall, state Senate President Phil Berger made waves when he publicly mused about the feasibility of merging the community college system into the University of North Carolina’s. Many who work in the system are bristling at this suggestion. They like the extreme amount of autonomy granted to each college and they fear getting lost in UNC’s giant shadow again, as well as the convoluted politics that often dog the UNC System.
The State Board of Education governed both systems in the early years. But Ralls, who is something of a community college history buff, said the board would spend an hour and 45 minutes of its meetings on the UNC System and 15 on the community colleges. The community colleges were an afterthought. Lawmakers eventually separated the systems, which allowed the community colleges to finally get their due.
But in an interview last fall about the new state budget funding, Berger told The Assembly about plans to move the UNC System Office from Chapel Hill to downtown Raleigh—and to move the community college office into the same building.
Asked about the possibility of merging the two systems, Berger replied: “I think there is a need. … And to get them all in one building, maybe we can get them into one organizational structure.”
Berger’s comment has been the subject of much discussion in the community college world since then. “The alignment between the two systems is obviously critical,” said Geoff Coltrane, senior education advisor in Gov. Roy Cooper’s office. The governor’s office favors changes like streamlining financial aid and course credits to help community college students transition into the UNC System, he added, pointing to the work that has already been done to treat the community colleges not just as a workforce-training system, but as a place where students start their pursuit of four-year degrees.
But Cooper’s office said that there are no immediate plans to officially merge the systems, and the state would have to tread carefully before taking that step.
“There needs to be a thorough assessment before there are major changes moving forward. It would need to be thoroughly looked at and studied,” said Coltrane. “We’ve got two great higher-education systems here in the state, national models in many instances, and the last thing we would want to do would be to weaken either one of them.”
Every state’s community college system differs, and North Carolina is not unique in having two separate systems. Some states, like Arizona, have no central board oversight of the state’s community colleges; others, like Alabama, govern all higher education under a single board.
Briggs, the consultant, said leaders in the North Carolina community college world fear a merger would break a system that, by and large, has worked for six decades. Community colleges could get lost in the shuffle of a powerful, political system like UNC’s. How they would fit into the complexities of the UNC System, who would govern them, and how would also be key concerns.
That’s not to say they see no advantage in considering a merger. Ralls pointed out that community college students are typically funded at 53 percent of what it costs to subsidize UNC System freshmen and sophomores taking similar classes. Could a merger help with that disparity?
“If it’s about educational opportunity and there wasn’t as much funding differential between the two, then it can have positives,” said Ralls. “But what’s the intent of what’s being accomplished?”
Board member Sam Searcy agreed that a merger could help tackle the community college system’s byzantine funding model and its tether to the vicissitudes of student enrollment. He says that, to him, that allocation model is old-fashioned and is causing North Carolina to lag behind community college systems in neighboring states.
“It goes back to, How are we going to address some of the challenges in terms of funding?” said Searcy. “And that’s going to guide whether a merged system becomes a reality.”
But many of the leaders who have dedicated their career to the community college system urge caution.
“It takes a long time to build something, but you can break it overnight if you’re not careful,” Ralls said.
Bringing the community college system under UNC’s umbrella would alter one of the system’s hallmarks: the remarkable local control that each individual college currently enjoys. The colleges can act quickly and customize their culture and offerings to the needs of the individual communities. Proponents of this intense local control praise the nimbleness of the colleges. They tout the fact that the 58 schools are not franchises. They value the ability to make each one the best it can be for an individual region.
Take Tri-County Community College in Murphy, near the Georgia border, said Ralls. It has a welding program that’s instrumental to that region’s economy. Take Sampson Community College, which has what Ralls described as the best agricultural program in the state, nestled right in the hay- and hog-producing region south of Fayetteville.
While local control may be one of the system’s greatest benefits, it can also be its greatest curse. Over the past few decades, there have been a small but memorable number of cases in which colleges have gone off the rails. In the 2000s, the president of Halifax Community College was fired following allegations that he funneled college resources to his own bank account and used them to support a political candidate. In the 2010s, the Martin Community College president stepped down after a dicey audit and allegations of mismanagement. In February, The Assembly reported on a controversial president at Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington.
“That was certainly a situation where you heard local voices,” said Stith about Cape Fear.
Most recently, there was the resignation of Johnston Community College President David Johnson following an audit and investigation.
Another possibility for the community college system is merging the great 58 down to, say, 48. No one’s talking about closing campuses, but rather combining smaller colleges into one larger administrative structure and turning the individual campuses into satellites, the way Wake Tech currently contains seven campuses under one president and board.
In 2011, the state legislature issued a report looking at the cost savings of consolidating colleges. It assessed that merging the administrations of 15 smaller schools into bigger schools could save the state $5 million a year. But those who oppose consolidation say these savings are not enough to justify the downsides.
“Good leadership makes a hell of a difference,” said Briggs. “You might be penny-wise and a pound foolish.
“As in any model, there can be breakdowns in the model,” he said. “If the local board doesn’t evaluate its president, that president gets a little bit out of control, and that’s the local board’s responsibility. Do the wheels come off once in a great while? Sure. But I think the structure and statute in state board code and operationally at the campus level works pretty darn well.”
Briggs said that the proof is in the numbers: As a consultant for presidential searches, when a seat opens up, he regularly sees 60 to 65 applications from 20 to 25 states.
“If this were not a great model, why would so many people be applying to become presidents of community colleges in North Carolina?” he said.
Other states exercise different levels of control over their individual community colleges. Virginia, for example, controls its colleges tightly from an office in Richmond. Some North Carolinians worry that bringing that model here would leave the colleges less nimble and more beholden to convoluted forces in Raleigh.
Having a community college within 35 miles of every North Carolinian is a “sacred trust,” said Board Chair Sullivan in an interview. For him, the greater problem is not losing control of wayward presidents, but rather the effect on small, localized colleges as rural enrollment plummets and populations shift toward urban areas (an issue covered by goal five).
“We will never close any of our 58 colleges,” said Sullivan, while acknowledging that “we might have to manage them a little differently than in the past.”
Michael Helmick, the former president of Western Piedmont, doesn’t describe himself as pro-merger but is eager to consider the possibilities.
“Even though I think it’s a great system, I don’t think it’s a great way to run a system,” he said. “There are colleges that tend to get really off the rails. They don’t resolve the issue, or it takes them so long to resolve it.”
He said that at the very least, colleges should explore sharing facilities, IT systems, and staff. When he was president at Western Piedmont, he said, he collaborated with nearby Catawba Valley Community College to share three positions, as well as machinist facilities for students to learn about furniture-making, an important local industry.
Helmick added that, far from fearing control, he would have welcomed more support from the higher-ups in Raleigh. “There were times when we wondered what exactly the people at the systems office did,” he said.
And so do people who work at the main office in Raleigh. At the April meeting, board member Mark Merritt presented on a board self-evaluation, which showed that 60 percent of the board members craved a stronger understanding of their role.
“We need a bigger picture of the mission of the board. The mission of the system office,” he said. “We’re here overseeing 58 colleges. This makes it cloudy. Saying to look at the handbook isn’t going to be enough.”
The northern campus of Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh is a modern, orderly space with throughways christened with names like “Possibility Lane” and “Excellence Drive.”
On a sunny February day, students in the brand-new Hendrick Center for Automotive Excellence examined the insides of wrecked sedans and trucks and learned how to restore old Model Ts.
Outside the center, students talked and did homework in the winter sunshine. Former marines chatted by a food truck. At a nearby outdoor table, a pair of 18-year-olds described how community college is an easier on-ramp to higher education than your traditional four-year school. Anna Alderink said she came to Wake Tech because it was cost-effective. Sophie Sinton-Covens said she struggled with homework in high school, but she knew she could easily gain acceptance to a community college and continue her education.
Their friend, Kevin Wang, 21, chimed in: “I stopped caring about school when I was 16, worked a few years, but then realized that I needed an education to work on something that mattered, like climate change,” he said, adding that he plans to study science and philosophy.
Wake Tech is one of the community colleges that is thriving. Its seven campuses around Raleigh have seen blossoming enrollments, its president has worked in the system for decades, and there is a booming need for the kinds of employees it produces. The new center, opened this year, will graduate 200 automotive technicians each year, a field that currently has 1,200 open positions across the state.
So what will happen to the system that serves any student in the state who craves higher education? Sullivan said they will drill down on the goals. “We will have open discussion of the goals every month. And if it gets uncomfortable, it gets uncomfortable.”
And if the goals don’t work?
“That is something we cannot even imagine,” he said.
Correction: This article previously misstated the year governance of the UNC system and the community college system split.
Emily Cataneo is a writer and journalist based in Raleigh. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, Slate, Atlas Obscura, Undark, and many other venues. She is a co-founder of Raleigh’s Redbud Writing Project.