“There is a tide in the affairs of men which, if taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” The line from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” perfectly describes the situation in which North Carolina higher education finds itself today:

n A trickle has become a flood as COVID-19 has accelerated the state’s now inevitable switch from in-person to online learning;

n The economic impact of COVID-19 threatens to leave gaping holes in North Carolina’s budget for years to come; and

n For the first time in its history the University of North Carolina is led by individuals who respect, admire, and trust the state’s community colleges and who, in turn, are respected, admired, and trusted by those colleges.

This alignment of the planets is unlike anything we have ever experienced. It tells me we have the chance to bring real change to higher education in North Carolina — to give each sector the chance to focus on what it does best and what it can deliver to our state at a reasonable cost.

My idea is radical yet simple: Let community colleges educate all the state’s freshmen and sophomores and the universities educate all the juniors, seniors and graduate students.

It is not a secret that UNC costs per student are substantially higher than the cost of educating students at community colleges. Moving freshman/sophomore education to those colleges could potentially save (or enable colleges and the university to redirect) billions of taxpayer dollars in the coming decade.

It won’t be an easy job to get this accomplished. As Tom Hanks says about baseball, “If it was easy, everyone would do it.” Students who might have been university-bound after high school will not want to give up Greek life, football and the chance to be exposed in their first two years to some of the leading scholars in their disciplines.

Universities will balk at proposals that reduce the scope of their mission and potentially threaten an important source of revenue. Community colleges may push back against emphasis on university transfer rather than workforce preparation. The move toward online education will have to exempt health care and other touch-required disciplines.

There will surely be lots of complications — though six months ago nobody thought we would be learning and working from home and watching baseball games in empty stadiums.

To be honest, I realize how hard it will be to get a plan like this accepted, but I feel it might really be worth the try. Let community colleges specialize in providing much less expensive undergraduate education, and have universities focus on first-rate baccalaureate and graduate work.

Even if it has to be phased in over a decade, this could save taxpayers billions of dollars, while actually enhancing the quality of the product higher education could deliver.

I do know this: If this idea or any ideas that take a macro look at North Carolina higher education can ever succeed, now is the time. We’ll never get a chance again to take this fundamental look at how our product is delivered. As Elvis Presley once sang, “It’s now or…” well, you know the rest.

John Dempsey is president of Sandhills Community College.

(2) comments

ken leary

Sorry, but I have a couple nagging questions. When I moved to NC the state was said to have an excellent education system. Then someone named Art Pope and the conservative "leaders" started eviscerating the system by removing people they couldn't control and programs they didn’t like. Is that the system you extol? Secondly, your Jr college plan is even more class based than what exists now. People who are groomed to swim in the one percent are not going to postpone Princeton to spend two years learning welding, so why should anyone else if their interest is developing critical thinking skills. Is that the point? You don’t want people capable of recognizing that the only thing keeping them down, besides the system of violence, is their inability to understand the mechanisms of control. Another letter today mentioned Samual Huntington, an author of “The Crisis of Democracy” who believed, as did Plato, that the best government is run by an aristocracy. The Demos, the elites believe, is just too unruly and stupid to make considered decisions regarding social organization. That, they believe, is best left to those who are capable; and that capability is made manifest by the “aristocrat’s" effort and ability to enclose all the public commons and relegate the rest of us to depend on their benevolence. Serfs up. This is disappointing coming from an “educator.” Stop thinking about money and demand education be free as it is in civilized countries. Grow a pair. Stop letting your board of directors make up your mind for you.

Kent Misegades

100% wrong. Community colleges exist primarily to serve the needs of the businesses in the counties that fund them. They were never meant to be “UNC Lite” or to host lectures by gender-confused professors from UNC-CH, as Sandhills CC did. One of the reasons that industry is booming around Charlotte and Sanford is because CPCC and CCCC are focused primarily on preparing local residents for work in industry. I posed the question of purpose of our community colleges to former Governor James Holshouser a decade ago, a key figure in our state’s large community college system. He confirmed that they were never meant to be a form of UNC-Lite and he did not agree at all with efforts to push them in that direction. Have a look at the SC Technical College System to see how it’s done. No surprise - industry is booming there. Also no surprise - the state votes mainly for Republican governors.

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