RALEIGH, N.C. - Enrollment climbed 4.4 percent across North Carolina's community colleges in fall of 2019, the first increase in nearly a decade.
The growth was widespread, with 53 of 58 colleges reporting increases. Enrollment boomed in short-term workforce education, jumping 9.4 percent, while the number of students in traditional academic programs rose by 3.8 percent.
The NC Community College System serves about 700,000 students a year, many of them part-time. Enrollment is calculated as a full-time equivalent measure.
The increases came after nine years of post-recession declines that are typical during a period of economic expansion. Community college enrollment ebbs and flows with the economy, but the fall 2019 growth runs counter to that trend.
"We're closing the skills gap with this level of growth," said Peter Hans, president of the NC Community College System. "It means more people are on their way to meaningful careers and brighter futures. It means more people are recognizing the value and quality of a community college education."
Last year, the legislature and governor approved additional state funding to achieve parity between short-term workforce programs and traditional curriculum programs at the colleges. The goal was to beef up workforce training for high-demand fields in order to narrow the skills gap employers have experienced in North Carolina. Students can often move into well-paying jobs after just a few months of workforce programs.
Hans attributed the enrollment increases to a number of factors, including local innovations and leadership at the colleges, a renewed emphasis on workforce training and a privately-funded marketing campaign that has promoted North Carolina's community colleges.
"There is more than one path to prosperity for North Carolinians," Hans said. "Our short-term workforce programs are leading students to good jobs in manufacturing, information technology, health care, transportation and other fields. With a small investment of time and money in these programs, students can begin a rewarding new career that can sustain them and their families."
Colleges have also made improvements in the way they meet students' needs, with more streamlined processes and more intensive advising and support services. Career Coaches, based in high schools, counsel students about their community college options. New programs have attracted students while also answering the demands of business in North Carolina.
Last year, the NC Community College System launched its first statewide marketing campaign, promoting community colleges to parents and students. Its message was simple: choose a higher education focused on getting hired. "Your Hire Education" ads appeared across North Carolina on billboards, radio, TV, print and digital platforms. The campaign was funded by the John M. Belk Endowment and the NC Community Colleges Foundation.