North Carolina politicians lavish generous praise on community colleges. Alas, this praise is more often a sort of rote incantation than a real statement of priorities.

Let’s change that. North Carolina’s community colleges are critically important, often a good investment of tax dollars, and deserving of far greater attention from lawmakers, education officials and opinion leaders. That attention need not be only laudatory. It should be constant – and backed by action.

Hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians take at least one course each year at one of the system’s 58 campuses. Some are full-time students. Most aren’t. If we account for that, the equivalent of about 100,000 full-time students were enrolled in North Carolina community colleges last year. For the University of North Carolina system, the comparable figure for undergraduates was about 170,000.

Most community-college students are enrolled in curriculum programs. They are working toward an associate degree, an associate of arts, college-transfer credits or diplomas. About 15 percent are enrolled, instead, in some form of continuing education. They are obtaining a particular job skill, retooling to change careers or taking classes simply for edification.

In recent years, North Carolina policymakers have standardized course offerings among community colleges and universities, thus easing the transition for transfer students and making it more attractive for high school graduates to begin their quest for baccalaureate degrees at community colleges that cost less – for both students and taxpayers – and are closer to home.

Some university leaders and policymakers resisted these changes and remain unconvinced they were a good idea. Critics view the freshman and sophomore coursework at community colleges as substandard and point to statistics such as low completion rates for associate degrees as evidence for academic weakness. They also complain, incorrectly, that college transfer is a distraction from the original, vocational mission of two-year institutions.

While community colleges should always be committed to continuous improvement, they often get a bum rap on quality. For one thing, measures such as degree-completion rates are notoriously uninformative. Although transfer students can – and ought to – receive associate degrees from their colleges before heading to universities, large numbers of them do not even fill out the necessary paperwork.

One study of full-time students who began at community colleges found that, after accounting for those who transfer without completing associate degrees, the share of students completing some kind of degree – associate or baccalaureate – was 55 percent within six years. That needs to be higher, naturally, but there are UNC campuses where the average six-year graduation rates for non-transfer students are at or below this level.

More to the point, the populations of students who enter higher education through community colleges are, on average, very different from those who go straight to universities. These characteristics explain much of the difference in degree completion, regardless of the type of institution attended.

Do community colleges deliver value? It’s a tough question to answer, but a necessary one. A 2017 analysis for Columbia University’s Teacher College tracked the earnings of community college students in eight states, including ours. North Carolinians who completed their associate degree earned substantially more in nine years than those who attended but did not complete college. Even those who didn’t graduate earned a bit more, on average, depending on how many classes they completed.

The same qualities that lead to degree completion could also make one a better worker, so the educational experience may not fully explain the wage premium. But I think the preponderance of the evidence suggests community college are, as community college professor Rob Jenkins put it in a recent article for the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, “among our leanest, most efficient institutions.” Unlike universities, they “do not need rock-climbing walls, expensive health clubs or luxurious dormitories to attract students. All they need is adequate staffing, competent, fairly-paid faculty, and reasonably modern facilities.”

Lawmakers, please take note.

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