North Carolinians often hear about the quality of the state’s community colleges, and most people who have had any interaction with these institutions agree with that description. The rest of the country is now making the same discovery, as a recent Washington Monthly ranking of the country’s best community colleges put Southwestern Community College in Jackson, Macon and Swain counties at fourth best in the country. Two other Tar Heel community colleges were in the top 30.
Southwestern Community College exceeded state and national benchmarks in all five of the criteria used to rank the two-year institutions: active and collaborative learning, student effort, academic challenge, student-faculty interaction and support for learners. In essence, the study looked at which colleges do the most — including innovative teaching techniques and student support services — to help their students achieve their goals.
SCC deserves the praise, and its many graduates in the region are a testament to its success. But Haywood Community College and the many other institutions in the state system that didn’t make the rankings are also key components of a higher education system that is doing a pretty good job of making itself accessible to every young person in this country.
According to one poll cited by the Washington Monthly researchers, 43 percent of all college freshmen begin their education at a two-year college. Of this number, a great many are from low-income families — 54 percent of community college students receive needs-based Pell grants — that see community colleges as their best opportunity to get the skills needed for a better job.
A key difference between universities and community colleges is the focus on teaching. Community college instructors are not under the pressure to publish in academic periodicals or conduct research. They get to concentrate on teaching and working with students, a fact that has driven many would-be doctoral students to forego the PhD for a career in a community college classroom. As better and more qualified teachers have entered the community college system, the quality of the education has gone up.
There is an important link between North Carolina’s community colleges and the state’s economic health. As we switch to an economy based on information technology, community colleges have become one of the primary places for equipping the workers who will help us remain competitive. One of the system’s trademarks is working with new and existing industries to provide training specific to the company’s needs.
Community colleges have also joined forces with the state’s university system to provide an inexpensive way for students to get their first two years of a university education at a bargain basement price while being able to remain at home. That has sparked an enrollment increase at community colleges throughout the state.
The quality of SCC and its commitment to it students is indicative of the philosophy that has infused the North Carolina Community College system since the first funding bill cleared the General Assembly in 1957, exactly 50 years ago. Whether it’s supporting SCC as it expands its Macon County campus or searching for ways to help HCC make much-needed capital upgrades, we need to continue to invest in these institutions. They are the best education bargain in the state of North Carolina.