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In North Carolina, Redesigning Education With a Focus on Success

By Emily Rogan

Statewide network of two-year career and technical colleges overcomes resource and budget challenges to spotlight the importance of completion.

In 2009, the North Carolina Community College System found itself at a crossroads. Thanks in large part to a worsening recession, enrollment at the state’s 58 two-year career and technical colleges had spiked 28 percent. Despite an increase in students, huge budget cuts loomed.

“We could have said, ‘We have plenty on our plates and can’t do anything else,’” says Scott Ralls, the college system’s president. The state could have taken the easy way out.

Instead, administrators and other education and community leaders resolved to do more. They developed a strategy that would satisfy the needs of the state’s growing student population by essentially rethinking their approach to higher education, starting with an emphasis on college completion.

The process began with a period of extensive research and data collection. Community college administrators toured the state conducting listening tours on individual campuses. That work resulted in SuccessNC, a collection of 15 statewide initiatives intended to redesign the community college experience to achieve common results.

The first phase of the project culminated last year with the release of the SuccessNC 2013 Final Report. The gradual implementation of those initiatives, which includes changes to everything from developmental education to dual enrollment programs, kicked off this year.

The easy way out would have been to lower bar in terms of rigor or restrict access — not let in as many students in who may be at risk.

“The easy way out would have been to lower the bar in terms of rigor or restrict access — not let in as many students in who may be at risk,” explains Ralls. “That would have improved percentages, but it would not have given enough students opportunities to succeed.”

Though North Carolina is far from the only state to undertake significant community college reforms, few public efforts have outlined those plans in such detail.

The full report describes more than a dozen promising programs designed to help the state achieve higher rates of student success. Three of those reforms, already under way, are explained below.

Developmental education

Community college students too often find themselves stuck in remedial noncredit courses. Many of those students end up dropping out before ever completing for-credit work in their chosen fields of study.

To counteract this, community college math and English faculty developed modular developmental curricula built around students’ needs. Students are assessed using faculty-designed competencies that identify specific areas of need and are then assigned to remedial programs. The process is intended to focus on the skills that students need to improve, not on the areas they’ve already mastered.

In just under one year, two state community colleges — Piedmont Community College and Nash Community College — have reported a decrease in enrollment in developmental education because, according to Ralls, students are getting the help they need.

Dual enrollment

Community colleges and high schools have worked together for years to offer dual-enrollment programs, in which high school students can take college courses while still enrolled at a secondary school. But until recently, many of those programs lacked focus. Students took the courses simply because they could, often without clear goals in mind.

In North Carolina, the SuccessNC plan aims to change all of that. “Students can sign up for specific pathways that determine the coursework they take on those pathways,” says Ralls, who describes the process as a kind of education “scaffolding” that helps ensure students are always building toward their academic and career goals.

Dubbed the Career and College Promise, the initiative — which, in some cases, reaches all the way back to the K-12 curriculum — ensures that students enroll only in courses deliberately aligned with their chosen pathway of study.

Credit transfer

Community colleges have long been viewed as a bridge to a four-year education. One sticking point continues to be the lack of a seamless transfer process. Students enroll in a four-year college, only to discover they need to retake credits previously earned at a community college.

North Carolina’s revised Comprehensive Articulation Agreement was designed to make it easier to transfer from a state community college to one of the state’s 16 colleges and universities.

More than 600 faculty members across the state spent two years hammering out a plan that:

  • Provides community college students with a clear understanding of pathways to transfer.
  • Identifies statewide general education coursework that will transfer to all state universities.
  • Supports community college students in the completion of two-year degrees prior to transfer, with a guarantee of acceptance into a four-year college as juniors with all credits accepted.

Likening the SuccessNC experience to a roller coaster, Ralls says the changes have been both scary and exciting. But he’s proud of the collective statewide input and support he’s received from administrators who view systemwide change as a necessity.

“Student success matters,” says Ralls. “Access is not sufficient for today’s economy and what students need. College can’t be a revolving door; students have to cross our graduation stages into meaningful careers.”

Is your college part of a statewide push to improve college completion? Tell us about it in the Comments.

Emily Rogan

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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1 Comment

  • Elizabeth Cox Brand

    For the past year, Oregon’s 17 community colleges have been meeting to develop a list of recommendations for redesigning developmental math, writing, placement, and comprehensive student services. In November, teams will again meet to develop implementation plans for those recommendations their colleges choose to undertake. Exciting time!!


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