How 5 N.C. community colleges are empowering students who have stopped out

Better Jobs, Better Skills: The hope of credentials, degrees for two million adult learners by 2030.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than a half million North Carolina residents had attended college and gained credits but never made it to completion. The past 18 months likely have made it more challenging.

But a coalition of five community colleges in the state along with national nonprofit InsideTrack are aiming to change that. They are utilizing funding from the John Belk Endowment and the Strada Education Network to give 12,000 adults a chance to re-launch their dreams of earning degrees.

“Across North Carolina, there are thousands of working adults who started on the path to a college degree, but too often life circumstances beyond their control intervened, forcing them to pause their education plans,” said Dr. Laura Leatherwood, president of Blue Ridge Community College. “We need to help understand and remove barriers to re-enrollment and college completion for individuals whose studies were disrupted by the pandemic—and for the thousands of other North Carolinians seeking to advance in their careers.”

So Blue Ridge, Pitt Community College, Fayetteville Technical Community College, Vance-Granville Community College and Durham Technical Community College will provide access to an abundance of support – from financial aid to health and wellness services – to help get students re-enrolled and begin taking classes again.

“As the pandemic recedes, we know that many North Carolinians are looking for a fresh start, and we believe our community colleges are a great place for their journey to begin,” said MC Belk Pilon, President and Board Chair of the Belk Endowment. “In a matter of months on a community college campus, adult learners can acquire skills and credentials that can change their families’ economic trajectory. Our goal is for all residents of our state to have access to an education that will lead to skills, credentials, and degrees, and ultimately the opportunities to achieve their dreams.”

As job qualifications increase, the goal set out by the state is to get two million students a high-quality credential or degree by 2030. Currently, only 50% of adults 25-44 in North Carolina have achieved that status.

“As we work to meet the diverse needs of employers in the Research Triangle region, we recognize the critical importance of helping working adults return to higher education to up- and re-skill—especially those who bring substantial educational experience but need to refresh their skills for new roles,” said John Buxton, president of Durham Tech. “In collaboration with community colleges and partners across North Carolina, this initiative will help us to build and sustain the versatile workforce needed to support a strong and inclusive economy in the years to come.”

On its website, Durham Tech has an exceptional career landing page for prospective students, showing potential fields of study, salary information and the number of jobs available within those areas in North Carolina, along with financial aid links and other resources. Other colleges should be promoting those landing spots to prospective or stopped-out students through their social media channels.

Community college enrollments waned badly across the U.S. over the past year, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, a stunning statement on how difficult is has been for older adults to get in and remain at institutions in a tight economy. The barriers are not only financial but include challenging enrollment processes. Inside Track is helping foster outreach, using one-on-one voice, text, and digital communication along with professional coaches to gauge interest from former students.

“This is about helping working adults to fulfill their college-going and career aspirations by providing the resources and support needed to restart their studies—and finish strong,” said Carrie Lockhert, associate vice president of partner success at InsideTrack.

The initiative will serve as a foundation for others in the future. Several organizations have jumped on to provide an assist, including the Better Skills, Better Jobs campaign, the North Carolina Community College System Office, the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research, and the University of North Carolina System Office.

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Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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