By Paul Wiles
WINSTON-SALEM (December 15, 2021) – Sometimes things that sound the same are not really the same at all. I would argue that when you think of higher education, you might assume that college is college, and you might not readily see the differences between community colleges and universities. Both systems offer access to high-quality, public higher education in North Carolina, but the notion that all levels and types of post-secondary education should be governed by one board is a farce.
The first thing I thought of when I heard the idea was a homophone: Education at all levels might sound alike, but education at each level has very different meanings, and very different missions.
I’ve spent eight and a half years on the Board of Trustees at Forsyth Tech, and I’ve come to understand the role of Forsyth Tech as a major driver of economic growth and socioeconomic equity within our community.
In my prior role, as the President and CEO of Novant Health, I relied upon Forsyth Tech to provide the single-most-important resource in the healthcare industry: Nurses! Did you know Forsyth Tech also trains electrical lineworkers, firefighters, paramedics, cybersecurity professionals and welders, just to name a few? Additionally, there are early college programs for high school students that allow them to graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree at just 18 – for free. Not to mention free classes for folks studying English as a Second Language, or the literally hundreds of continuing education certifications and credits that are offered to folks to advance their careers and gain new skills.
Does this still sound like a four-year institution to you? Is it still reasonable to think that institutions so incredibly different should be governed by the same board?
Another point of confusion for me with this idea is: What is the problem that they’re trying to fix with organizational change? By all accounts, our university system is among the most highly respected in the country, and our community colleges are doing a phenomenal job of adapting rapidly to the workforce needs. Over the last year, our own community college has opened an aviation technology lab and program, offered incentives to encourage the next generation of paramedics to receive training, provided stipends and free resources to K-12 teachers to learn about cybersecurity, and filled every healthcare course offered to capacity.
Additionally, the students that we’re training are succeeding at all levels. According to a study by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, community-college students who earn an associate degree and then transfer to four-year institutions have graduation rates equal to or higher than students who enroll directly from high school or transfer from another four-year institution. According to the same study, the students who began at a community college also graduate in a reasonable amount of time (2.5 years, on average) and at a lower total cost to the student.
As I reflect upon my 40-year career, I think of the mantra that all those who work in healthcare hold dearly: First, do no harm. The kinds of changes that would undoubtedly result from the consolidation of education governing boards has the potential to do harm to the very people they are designed to serve.
The notion that education is the same across the board is, put simply, false. What does an electrical lineworker have in common with a PhD student in electrical engineering? While both impact critical functions in our lives, who do you want your community to have available during a thunderstorm? An ice storm?
I implore you not to be seduced into a false belief that the establishment of a sole governing body for public education in North Carolina would benefit our students. The community colleges across our state are doing a fantastic job of training the future – and current – members of our workforce. Please don’t allow an unnecessary change to delay progress for our state and local economies and, most importantly, for the students and communities we serve.
Paul Wiles is a former President and CEO of Novant Health. He currently serves as Chair of the Board of Trustees at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem.