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NC to Fund Community College Programs According to Workforce Needs

North Carolina's new "Propel NC" initiative will allocate funding to community college programs based on how much they drive economic growth, prioritizing fields such as information technology and advanced manufacturing.

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(TNS) — A new plan aims to change course funding for North Carolina community colleges to better meet local employers' workforce needs.

The North Carolina Community College System has unveiled Propel NC, which it terms "a new community college business model for the new N.C. economy."

Propel NC proposes investing more money in programs that produce workers for high-demand, high-wage jobs in advanced manufacturing, biotechnology, information technology, and health care.

North Carolina is projected to have more than 576,000 annual job openings by 2031, according to N.C. Community Colleges website. To fill those positions, there needs to be skilled workers equipped to do so.

The goal is that Propel NC will get people out into the workforce more efficiently.

The new plan "is intended to help address workforce shortages — current and projected workforce shortages," said Dr. Shelley White, president of Haywood Community College. Two areas of great interest are manufacturing and health care, she said.


The current community college funding model emphasizes degree programs. Propel NC would be a more job-focused model, said Laura Leatherwood, president of Blue Ridge Community College. She used welding as an example. On a per-course basis, community colleges receive more funds for a student participating in welding and pursuing an associate's degree than for a student taking the very same courses and only seeking a certification.

"If you look at our economy today, our economy places value on the credential, and the credential could be a TIG or a MIG welding certification, not necessarily an associate's degree in welding," Leatherwood said. "So, if you look at the economy in the state of North Carolina, that TIG or MIG means just as much if not more than the associate's degree in welding, right?"

The new proposal "really eliminates the line between funding for degree programs and funding for workforce development programs," White said.

The current model has been in place for over a decade, and many consider it outdated. In August, a committee of community college presidents was formed to review, investigate and think about what a new funding system would look like. The General Assembly also provided input, suggesting the college courses need to be more aligned with requirements for jobs that the state is recruiting. The legislature wants courses to be focused on high-demand, high-wage jobs.

"More and more companies need a higher number of people (going) into the workforce in a faster period of time," Leatherwood said, adding she thinks the COVID-19 pandemic fast-forwarded the shift as more people exited the workforce.


Funding from the legislature to the community colleges will be based on what drives economic growth and meets employer demands across the state under the new model.

"One of the things that we've heard a lot about across the state is that North Carolina has been named the top state for business for two years in a row. For us to remain competitive with companies and support the needs across our state, going back to things like health care, we have to make investments as a state in workforce development," White said.

This past fall, HCC enrollment for short-term credentials jumped 10 percent. To accommodate student demand post-pandemic and mill closure, HCC offered more technical programs during the evening, and offered short-term courses for flexibility.

"I think what it shows is that people are looking for options. And also flexibility, and being mindful of how long it takes to complete a degree or something that's going to help them towards their next job opportunity or to advance in their field," White said.

Leatherwood said enrollment across the community college system in N.C. is up approximately 4 percent And most of that growth is in workforce training, she said.

"I think that's really key," she added. "If we're able to get this funded, this could mean a 3.71 percent increase for Haywood Community College, which I can't think of a college in more need than I can Haywood, based on a recent loss of industry in that particular area."


To fund training for higher-demand, higher-wage job skills will require an additional $68 million in funding.

"The plan overall is a $68-million ask to the legislature, which we recognize is significant. However, community colleges are the workforce engines of our state. And so, I think investing in community colleges is going to pay lasting dividends for our state in terms of having a prepared workforce," White said.

The proposal also recommends increases in funding for some areas of study.

"The top three areas that they're looking at in terms of increasing the value of funding is high-demand health care, engineering and manufacturing, and then trade and transportation is the other," White said. "Which is right in line with what we're doing with our construction programs and truck driver training. It's encouraging too, because it feels like we're aligned with the needs of the workforce."


The proposal includes an increase in "base allotment" funding for community colleges. Every college, regardless of size, receives an allotment that covers basic functions including its financial aid and admissions office and business office that processes payments, etc. The proposed funding would increase that amount.

Propel NC also recommends a change in its reserve fund that is to assist students in dire circumstances. Currently, the college presidents said, the state provides those funds after the fact. That means colleges are playing catch-up.

"When you have a significant layoff like Haywood County has had with Evergreen or Champion paper and a surge in students, you don't get the money till the next year," Leatherwood explained. "What this would do is say, 'OK, we recognize you're having a surge, and there's a reserve here, we're gonna give you part of that reserve to help you serve that company and those employees', that's what the enrollment reserve will do. It'll give you the ability in real time to serve the students that are coming to your doors."

Both Leatherwood and White hope the General Assembly supports the new Propel NC model.

"We feel like it drives accountability, it's measurable, and aligns credentials and careers," Leatherwood said. "We think that by the General Assembly investing in this new model, that it can only increase the number of people that we're getting into the workforce that are highly skilled."

©2024 The Mountaineer (Waynesville, N.C.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.