North Carolina community colleges depend on funding from the state legislature for the majority of their revenue. For several programs crucial to employers — in fields such as health care, construction, manufacturing and public safety — training programs are funded at a lower rate than traditional curriculum programs, simply because they award a certificate or credential, instead of a diploma. In a three-part series, North State Journal will look at the impact of this funding imbalance, and what is currently being done to solve it.
Part 1, April 4: What the funding imbalance means to community colleges in the state, and the results of a one-year pilot program that is increasing the funding for selected workforce training programs.
Part 2, April 11: How employers around the state, who are desperately seeking qualified candidates for many specialized jobs, would benefit from a change in the funding model.
Part 3, April 18: Will the state legislature provide parity in funding for noncredit and curriculum courses?
Raleigh – When the North Carolina Community College System set its budget priorities for 2017 to 2019, one of the three primary goals it identified was to “ensure a highly skilled workforce pipeline.”
Quite simply, in many specialized fields around the state, there aren’t enough qualified workers to fill all the open positions.
“Employers are begging us for more certified and credentialed employees,” said David Johnson, president of Johnston Community College.
Part of the reason for this shortfall is that several jobs crucial to the needs of employers around the state — in fields such as construction, health care, manufacturing and public safety — require a certificate or industrial certification, instead of a college diploma, and the state funds noncredit programs at a lower rate than traditional curriculum programs.
North Carolinians pay less for community college than almost anywhere else in the nation. According to figures from CollegeBoard, only California and New Mexico had lower tuition and fees for community college students than North Carolina.
The high level of state funding helps make that possible — North Carolina community colleges get 57 percent of their revenue from the state, according to a 2016 report to the Program Evaluation Oversight Committee.
“The thing that the community college system was built upon is providing access for North Carolinians to higher educational opportunities,” said Mark Poarch, president of Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute. “A big part of that is keeping costs as low as possible. That’s the overarching goal throughout what all of us are trying to do: Provide relevant training in the most cost-effective way as possible, so we can make higher education accessible to those who need it most.”
The bulk of that state money, however, goes to for-credit curriculum programs, in which a student works toward a two-year degree. Noncredit programs, many of which are short-term certificate programs geared at workforce training, earn 34 percent less per student in state funding.
“I think we are real fortunate that we receive any funding for noncredit instruction,” said Johnson. “Not all states provide it.”
In fact, 22 states, including New York, Georgia, Missouri and Tennessee, offer no general funding for noncredit workforce education.
“I think, when it first started, noncredit education wasn’t so much focused on workforce development,” said Johnson. “It may be that it wasn’t seen as valuable as curriculum education.”
That’s not the case anymore, as noncredit workforce training courses now have the same rigor as curriculum classes.
“We have these courses that have the same faculty credentials and the same student learning outcomes as curriculum courses,” said Dr. Heather Hill, vice president of academic affairs at Stanly Community College. “For all intents and purpose, they really are the same class. If we have the same expectations for those students and faculty members, then they should be funded at the same level.”
Change on the horizon?
There is the possibility that workforce training programs will soon see parity in funding, however. This year, the State Board of Community Colleges, the North Carolina Association of Community College Presidents and the North Carolina Association of Community College Trustees are all petitioning the legislature to fund noncredit and credit programs equally.
“The issue we’re facing is that businesses and industries are relying on us now more than ever before to get people trained in the most efficient way possible and get them into the workforce,” said Poarch. “Having parity funding is critical to that initiative, to getting people in short-term training courses and getting them prepared to take jobs that are available today.”
“Employers I work with around here really don’t care whether its credit or noncredit,” said Johnson. “They just want skilled employees.”
Full parity would cost an additional $16 million. The legislature is expected to consider options for equalizing funding for both curriculum and noncurriculum courses. In the meantime, the state funded a $2 million pilot program this year, allowing 36 North Carolina community colleges to fund one noncredit program at a higher rate.
Johnston Community College received more than $65,000 for its nurse’s aide program. Caldwell is using $124,000 to support truck driver training. Montgomery CC got $47,000 for training in using drones for search and rescue. Airframe systems, HVAC, masonry, MRI tech, welding and biowork are some of the other programs around the state seeing a one-year boost in funding.
Johnston was able to add more nurse’s aide classes, which will mean more nurse’s aides available to start work in the very near future. Caldwell, who also provides truck-driver education for several other colleges in central and western North Carolina, was able to expand to a new area — in Forsyth County. The money is also being used to hire more instructors and upgrade equipment.
“I certainly hope they will see that the investment is well worth the return on that investment,” Poarch said. “You think about our truck driving graduates, for example. We graduate about 250 students a year, and each one of those graduates earns an average salary of about $50,000. So if we can expand that and produce additional graduates … you only have to graduate two and a half additional students to get that return on investment. That’s pretty good.”
“I’m not sure there is a good Plan B”
If the legislature isn’t as impressed with the results of the pilot plan as the colleges are, it’s not clear what the future holds for noncredit programs.
“Without the additional funding, one alternative would be to add additional fees to students,” said Poarch. “We don’t want to do that.”
Another option, which some community colleges have already explored, is offering the same programs as curriculum courses, at the higher funding rate. That would mean less flexibility in terms of scheduling. In some programs, it would also slow down a student’s progress and impede the flow of qualified employees to businesses that are already waiting.
“For certain programs, you’d be running it as a 16-week semester, versus an eight-week continuing-ed class,” said Poarch. “That could cause some problems.”
Another option would be to maintain the overall budget of course funding while making all courses, regardless of status, funded at the same rate. That option would lower the amount for curriculum courses by 2 to 3 percent and raise the rate for noncurriculum courses. That shift would remove any incentive for community colleges to offer curriculum courses over noncurriculum courses. That, however, would require cutting funds for core classes.
“I’m not sure there is a good Plan B,” Poarch concluded.
Still, the community college leaders seem confident that the legislature will come through with funding parity.
“They’re beginning to see the value in noncredit instruction, in terms of supporting workforce development,” said Johnson, “and their constituents are banging on their doors saying, ‘We need help.’
“Community colleges need to be appropriately funded, and we never have been,” Johnson continued. “We certainly are not now. This is a step in the right direction.”