NC Community Colleges Seek $100 Million More to Revamp Training

North Carolina community college leaders have a big ask for state lawmakers this year: a $100 million restructuring of workforce training programs.

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By Laura Leslie, WRAL capitol bureau chief

State community college leaders have a big request for state lawmakers when they return to Raleigh in April for this year’s session.

The governing board of the 58-campus system – the second largest in the country – wants to restructure the system’s funding model to make it more responsive to the workforce needs of North Carolina employers.

The price tag for the first year of the Propel NC project would be about $100 million, in addition to the $1.5 billion already budgeted for the community college system in the 2024-25 fiscal plan.

NC Community Colleges Seek $100 Million More to Revamp Training

System President Jeff Cox acknowledges that’s a big ask in a short session, when lawmakers typically focus on adjustments rather than new initiatives. But he doesn’t think the change can wait another year.

“We’ve got tens of thousands of jobs that are coming with some of these huge announcements like Toyota, Vinfast, Wolfspeed and others. The urgency is there,” Cox told WRAL. “Some of them are already starting to do some hiring. We want to be ready to meet that demand.”

If lawmakers commit the funds needed, they plan to roll out the changes in fall 2024, Cox said.

Spokespeople for Republican Senate leader Phil Berger and Republican state House Speaker Tim Moore didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Degree vs. non-degree

Under the current funding model, in place since 2011, community colleges receive more funding for two-year degree programs than for non-degree or continuing education courses. But employers are increasingly looking for shorter, more tailored training programs in specific areas like healthcare, information technology, biotech and manufacturing. Because most are non-degree programs, they’re funded by the state at a lower level despite the higher demand for them.

Cox used the example of a two-year emergency medical services degree program versus a non-degree EMS certification program.

“The challenge has been that if you did it through the short-term workforce credential side of our operation, it was funded at a lower level under the current structure than it would be if you took it as a two-year curriculum program,” he said. “So colleges were incentivized to try to push all their students into the two-year program.”

Propel NC would remove the distinction between degree and non-degree workforce training courses, aligning them instead by the sectors they serve. The state funding level would be the same either way.

Tiers vs. demand

Under the current funding model, colleges also receive more funding for courses that are expensive to offer, like nursing. That’s known as the tier system. But Cox says it’s overly complicated, and the extra tier funding still doesn’t cover the actual cost. That limits the number of seats schools make available.

“Every college has the challenge currently that every nursing student they add, they’re digging themselves further and further into a financial hole, while our communities need us to grow and expand how many nurses we’re graduating,” Cox explained.

Under Propel NC, Cox said, the funding for nursing programs would be enough to make them sustainable, allowing schools to increase enrollment in them to respond to market demand.

The system is asking lawmakers for $68.6 million a year to increase funding for high-demand, high-wage workforce sectors, and an additional $24.4 million per year to increase the base operating allocation each school receives to shore up student services and campus support.

The $68.6 million would boost instructor wages in high-demand programs to make them more competitive with the private sector, Cox said, noting that professionals like nurses, welders, and other professions in high-demand areas currently earn more than community colleges can pay them, making it expensive to recruit and retain faculty in those areas.

Propel NC also calls for a one-time expenditure of $6 million for an enrollment growth reserve. Community colleges are funded based on last year’s enrollment, so if they get a surge in enrollment, they aren’t getting extra funding to hire instructors or add sections to serve those new students. The proposal would allow any campus with annual growth above 5% to use the funds to meet those expanded needs.

Cox says the system’s goal is to move “at the speed of business” to meet the state’s coming workforce challenges.

“There are tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians who are not yet fully enjoying this robust economy that we have, who are living on the margins, who are living below a living wage standard,” he said. “At the same time, you’ve got all these businesses and industries who are expanding who are desperate for a talent pipeline. I see our community colleges as being the bridge between those two.”