Scott Ralls, president of the N.C. Community College System, will be in Washington D.C. today for the first White House Summit on Community Colleges, an event hosted by Jill Biden, wife of vice president Joe Biden. Jill Biden teaches at a community college in northern Virginia.
The summit, which will be streamed live on the White House website, will bring together a collection of community college administrators, faculty and students as well as business leaders to discuss federal and state policy issues concerning higher education.
Ralls spoke to the News & Observer Monday about the summit. Here are excerpts.
This is the first community college summit. What is the significance of that?
There's been more discussion about community colleges in the last 12 to 18 months than maybe in our previous years of existence. We've seen the growth of interest nationally over the last few years when presidents started mentioning them in State of the Union speeches. I think we've grown out of the shadows in higher education.
A couple of things. Community colleges are so jobs-focused that because of the recession, the attention on community colleges rises. Secondarily, but related to long-term economic prosperity - there's been a lot of attention on college completion rates, the need for citizens broadly to gain post-secondary credentials, which for us means diplomas and industry certifications as well as degrees.
Because of that need, almost half of undergraduates are community college students. There's a realization that to meet national goals, it requires community colleges.
What can the federal government offer community colleges?
Like any part of government, we have funding challenges. I don't know that I or anyone else expect a great deal of funding resources, but I think the federal government plays a role in higher education funding. Community colleges have not received a great deal of federal funding in the past, but I think there are opportunities for the federal government to support community colleges.
There's a great network of workforce development and there's an opportunity for more in that regard. One of our greatest challenges right now is facilities. As much as we've grown in the last two years, and in North Carolina we've grown 23 percent in the last two years, we still face great capacity issues, which limit our abilities to reach more citizens.
Can you do some of it online?
Community colleges are typically the ones most out in front in distance education and that's the case in North Carolina. On average, our degree students take at least two classes online. Part of that is due to our student population.on average, our students are closer to 30 years of age than 20, so distance education is a way of life. But you can't do everything through distance education.
We don't teach distance education welding classes. Most classes can be made more efficient by distance education and many can be taught entirely by distance education, but many require experience in shops and labs, hands-on experience.
What is the primary challenge facing community colleges that you hope gets discussed in Washington?