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Community colleges key to economic recovery

Catawba News Service
“Community colleges are the solution to so many economic challenges which face our state and nation today,” Phil Kirk, vice president for external relations at Catawba College, told trustees and presidents attending the annual Law Conference sponsored by the North Carolina Association of Community College Trustees meeting in the Research Triangle Park Thursday night.
He indicated that history “will show that the states which continue to invest in their community colleges will recover more quickly. By cutting the budgets of community colleges any more than is absolutely necessary in a bad economy, we are starving the solution.”
However, Kirk, former vice chair of the State Board of Community Colleges, cautioned, “In these tough times the public is not looking to community college personnel for whiny complaints about how you can’t do your job because of lack of funds. While this may be true, excuses are not what gain you support among the tax-paying public. Excuses don’t produce trained workers. Finding solutions to continue training and retraining workers is what the public deserves.”
On the importance of positive attitudes, Kirk said, “We cannot plow ahead with our heads down and frowns on our faces. We are the last hope, the best hope, and for some, the only hope. Your classes may be more crowded, your waiting lists for certain subjects may grow longer, and your faculty and staff may be doing more than normal or what their job descriptions require. But we will survive. By working hard and working smart, we have the opportunity to pull our state’s economy out of the ditch, the opportunity to get us back on track.”
A long-time member of the Rowan-Cabarrus Community College Foundation Board, Kirk used Rowan-Cabarrus as an example of some positive news. He spoke about the recent groundbreaking for the first new building on the north campus of RCCC in 30 years and said it would be the first LEED certified building in Rowan County as well as being used to train construction instructors from 16 community colleges around the state. Dr. Carol Spalding, President of RCCC, and her husband, Fran Koster, were in the audience.
He also spoke about the improved co-operation between four-year colleges and universities and the state’s 58 community colleges. “I believe there is a new and extremely positive attitude throughout most of our state by our four-year institutions toward our community colleges.”
Using Catawba College as an example, he spoke of steps the college is taking to make it easier for students to transfer from area community colleges to Catawba College, including new and improved articulation agreements, teaching classes on community college campuses for course credit at Catawba, annual update luncheons on Catawba’s campus for community college leaders, co-operation with Early College programs on each campus, and efforts to improve scholarship assistance for transfer students.
However, he admitted, “We must do a better job of marketing our opportunities, our affordability, and our accessibility.” He cited several reasons for the improved co-operation,including the economy and changes in attitudes about the quality of community college teaching and learning.
“Faculty also recognize that community college transfer students have developed a strong work ethic. They are usually very serious about doing well and getting their degree.”
He told the group that tight budgets cause officials to look at everything the colleges do. “While we should and do look for efficiencies and different ways of doing things in times of crises, we are often forced into making changes which need to be made because we literally have no other choice. Education is an intense people business and in community colleges there are very, very few people that we can afford to give up without hurting instruction.”
Reminding the audience that “all politics is local,” Kirk urged the community college leaders to “maintain and strengthen those positive relationships with your state legislators and county commissioners. We must put a human face on the budget numbers. During these tight budget times, we must look for creative ways to strengthen and expand job fairs, job resources seminars, small business development, and entrepreneurial efforts.”
The conference ended Friday at lunch and included remarks by Lt. Governor Walter Dalton and sessions on the budget, ethics, legislation, contracting, board-board attorney relations, foundations, governance, role of the board, and other subjects.

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