GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – Technical and community colleges in North Carolina, deemed incredibly important to meeting the evolving needs of the future workforce, don’t fare very well in a new national ranking of those schools.

WalletHub, the financial advice company that crunches numbers and churns out a variety of evaluations, took on this task with a focus on affordability and effectiveness, because it says many students are drawn by the lower cost of the two-year technical and pre-college programs.

WalletHub says that during the 2021 to 2022 academic year, tuition and fees for full-time, in-state enrollment at public 2-year colleges averaged $3,800 per year, compared to $10,740 at a 4-year public school or $38,070 at a private school.

GTCC (WGHP file photo)
GTCC (WGHP file photo)

Some states have made tuition free at community colleges, and to that end, the NC Community College System announced Tuesday that students who graduated from North Carolina high schools are eligible to have their tuition and fees at the state’s community colleges covered through a grant program.

WalletHub’s evaluation found no community college in North Carolina ranked among the top 50 from among 677 evaluated nationally, with Craven Community College in New Bern the highest at No. 52. Its score of 61.07 points was about 10 behind the No.1-ranked school, State Technical College of Missouri.

The rest of the top five consisted of Northwest Iowa CC, Alexandria Technical & Community College, Manhattan Area Technical College and Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture.

WalletHub selected those 677 schools from among some of the members of the American Association of Community Colleges, its release said, and evaluated them based on cost & financing, education outcomes and career outcomes.

Analysts used 19 metrics under those categories – think tuition, faculty scales, special programs and even median salary for graduates – and weighted those areas equally (a third each) to create the 100-point scale used in rating.

Jeff Lowrance, vice president for communications at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, said that community colleges do a good job of both preparing students for careers and to move to 4-year college programs.

“The data shows that community colleges do both well,” Lowrance said in WalletHub’s release. “Community colleges need to meet the needs for the communities they serve, whatever they may be. The challenge is making sure prospective students and their families know a 4-year degree is not the only pathway to success.”

Said John Thelin, a professor of higher education at the University of Kentucky, to WalletHub: “Well, last time I looked, almost all students at four-year colleges were preparing for career and workforce. Consider pre-med students, pre-law students, business majors, pharmacy majors. The long-time fact of life in American life is that almost all high school graduates know they have to navigate their way to earn a living. Whether one aspires to transfer from a community college to a four-year college, you are probably preoccupied with how you will find your place and make a good living at a fulfilling job.”

Source: WalletHub

North Carolina rankings

Aviation program up and running at Forsyth Technical Community College
Forsyth Technical Community College

WalletHub evaluated and ranked 51 of North Carolina’s 58 community colleges, and Craven CC is No. 1, of course, and it and a few other NC schools were noted for excelling in various ways.

Craven was noted as tying with two other North Carolina community colleges, Surry and Roanoke-Chowan, for having the nation’s lowest student-loan default rate (Bladen CC had one of the highest). Pamlico CC was cited for having the second-lowest student-teacher ratio in the nation and the highest graduation rate.

Craven was followed in the state’s top five by Wake Technical, Johnston, Mayland and Lenoir. Only Wake and Johnston ranked among the top 100 nationally.

Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, which serves Wilkes, Alleghany and Ashe counties, is ranked highest among the community colleges in the Piedmont Triad, coming in at No. 13 in the state. But its score of 56.86 points was about five below Craven’s total.

Elsewhere in the Triad, Surry CC is No. 15; Davidson CC is No. 17; Randolph is No.20; Montgomery is No 25; Guilford Technical & Community College is No. 33; Forsyth Technical is No 40; and Alamance is No 44.

Some perspective

Jeff Lowrance, vice president for communications at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte (WALLETHUB)

Lowrance was one of six experts that WalletHub used to provide responses to a standard group of questions. His responses may provide more insight about North Carolina’s community colleges.

Do you think making community college tuition free will increase enrollment and graduation rates?

“Anything that helps to enhance access to college will likely increase enrollment. With so many factors impacting graduation/completion rates, it is hard to speculate the effect free tuition might have.”

What can policymakers do to improve the quality of education and training at community colleges and the career prospects of graduates?

“At the federal level, broadening the Pell Grant program to include more students would help more persist and complete. At the state and local level, providing more funding for faculty and staff salaries would help colleges retain their best instructors and administrators. In several program fields, nursing and IT for example, it is difficult for colleges to match the salaries faculty members can earn off campus.”

Should community colleges focus more on preparing graduates for the workforce — through career and technical education — or on preparing graduates to move to a 4-year college?

“The data shows that community colleges do both well. It is not an either/or proposition. Community colleges need to meet the needs for the communities they serve, whatever they may be. The challenge is making sure prospective students and their families know a 4-year degree is not the only pathway to success. In many high-demand fields, a 2-year degree provides a path to a rewarding, family-sustaining career, with growth opportunities.”

In evaluating the best and worst community colleges, what are the top 5 indicators?

“That is a tough question because colleges vary so dramatically in the students and communities they serve. Within North Carolina, we have colleges that serve 30-50,000 students in urban areas. We also have colleges in rural communities that serve 2-3,000 students, or fewer. These colleges differ greatly in the programs they offer and the local industries they seek to support. This makes it hard to say who is better or best.”

What is the outlook for community college education in 2022?

“Bright and challenging. Communities are emerging from the pandemic, and employers have an immediate need for talent pipelines of well-trained workers. But with the possibility of a recession looming, no one knows for sure what to expect. Community colleges will continue to be the best value in US higher education. Prospective students from 16 to 70 should check their local community college to see how comprehensive, affordable, flexible and caring college can be.”

Tuition assistance program

The state said students can get tuition aid for any of the state’s 58 community colleges through the Longleaf Commitment Grant (started in 2021), which provides between $700 and $2,800 for up to two years, a release from the state said. That funding level is good through 2024.

“North Carolina’s community college system, one of the largest in the country, is critical as the state seeks to provide the necessary workforce for its economic future,” Kimberly Gold, chief of staff at the NC Community College System, said in the release. “The Longleaf Commitment Grant makes community college more affordable – increasing academic and career opportunities for students across the state.” 

Students interested in applying for the grants must apply to any of the community colleges and complete the 2022-2023 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) submission process. There is more information on the state’s site.