North Carolina’s Other Higher Education System

I met Dr. Scott Ralls seven years ago, when he was inaugurated as the North Carolina Community College System president. We’ve had our moments; for one, he routinely used an article of mine to counter my argument when talking to legislators. I laughed when he told me that; we have always gotten along well, even when on opposing sides of an issue. North Carolina will miss him when he steps down from the NCCCS presidency to become the president of Northern Virginia Community College, the nation’s second largest community college.

Community college’s are education’s heavy lifters and problem solvers: if Johnny can’t read well after 12 years of primary and secondary school, he takes remedial classes at the CC. If a local industry can’t find enough workers with the skills they need, they arrange for an apprentice program with the CC. And if the state universities jack up tuition beyond the ability of lower middle-class students to pay, they attend the lower-cost CC for their first two years.

Ralls’s tenure at the head of NCCCS was during an extremely volatile period: the economic downturn not only forced large budget cuts but chased many people, especially older, non-traditional students, into the community colleges to retool while out of work. And North Carolina’s political climate made a 180 degree turn, from a solid blue state to a solid red one.

I sat down with him for an hour or so to get his parting thoughts. He pulled few punches in this engaging interview, reflecting on such topics as the role of community colleges, remedial education, technical training as an economic incentive, the need for greater guidance of young people, and much more.

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