North Carolina Community Colleges and Counties: Conduits for Achievement

By Carl Wilkins | NCACC Strategic Communications Specialist

Aquaculture Department, Carteret Community College, Carteret County

North Carolina’s impressive economic and population growth stems from something other than luck or prayer (although both help) but instead from prior planning and investment in residents’ education.

After World War II, North Carolina leaders recognized the need for a more robust postsecondary education system that provided more flexibility than a four-year degree, leading to the establishment of a system of tax-supported community colleges across the state. And since 1957, when the General Assembly adopted the first Community College Act, North Carolina community colleges have been the engine breaking down barriers to higher education and powering local economies across the state.

Community colleges support counties and vice versa. In North Carolina, community colleges are purposefully embedded in local communities, thus making them an integral part of the communities in which they are located. The relationship between counties and community colleges goes beyond collaboration. Since their inception, counties and community colleges have operated symbiotically to make North Carolina an outstanding place for business, investment, workforce talent and access to education.

The NC Community College System (NCCCS) is the only public organization in North Carolina dedicated to providing affordable college access to anyone in the state. Access and localization are central to how NCCCS is structured. There are 58 community colleges across the state to ensure that every resident is at most 30 minutes away from opportunities for higher education. According to MyFutureNC, North Carolina’s postsecondary enrollment rate is 40%, placing it 22nd among all states in 2021. However, the NCCCS plans to increase that statistic with local outreach, involvement, and innovation. Like counties, every community college is different due to the unique needs of the communities they serve. Each community college is focused on designing education and programs to serve as a workforce pipeline to meet their county’s or region’s requirements. For example, Carteret Community College provides unique educational programming for coastal economies, such as aquaculture technology and boat manufacturing. In contrast, Southwestern Community College in Jackson County trains students in areas like advanced manufacturing and table gaming skills to work at casinos and factories.

Counties, community colleges, and economic workforce development boards work together to ensure the local community and business owners’ workforce needs align with the educational training provided.

AdvanceNC is the manifestation of what a successful collaboration between counties, economic development, and community colleges can look like on a large scale. AdvanceNC is an innovative workforce development ecosystem developing a robust talent pipeline to support significant economic growth in central North Carolina. It was created in partnership with 10 community colleges, two state universities, and six regional workforce development boa-rds, combining to provide opportunities for local families and develop expert workers for advanced manufacturing companies in the region.

Counties no doubt wish economic development were like the 1989 classic, “Field of Dreams.” “If you build it, he will come.” However, the adapted adage, “If you train them, he will come,” seems to be more like it. Large corporations like Toyota and WolfSpeed, planning to locate their multi-billion dollar operations in North Carolina, strategically searched the world to find the most conducive environments for their manufacturing. One of the most critical factors is the workforce pipeline, and if a county needs to fill 2,000 new highly trained positions, one community college isn’t enough. It requires a region to work together.

“Companies don’t care anything about our little territories for individual community colleges. They don’t want to know about competition between the universities and the community colleges. They want us all working together to meet their workforce needs. And that’s what this represents, 100 percent,” said Dr. Jeff Cox, President of the North Carolina Community College System.

AdvanceNC is an excellent example of counties working together for the betterment of one state.

Like any symbiotic relationship, it is mutually beneficial. Community colleges are one of the driving forces behind counties’ local economies, and counties support community colleges in numerous ways, primarily financially.

Southwestern Community College, Jackson County

North Carolina Community College System Chief of Staff Kim Gold summarizes the support of counties by stating, “It varies by county, but the way that the community college system is established, the county that the college is located in provides support for the building and maintenance of the campus. Some counties may provide other types of support, but typically campuses are supported by their county.”

Additionally, counties partner with community colleges to increase student enrollment by lowering the financial barriers to access higher education. Twenty-eight North Carolina community colleges have developed Promise Programs in partnership with counties to cover student tuition fees. This dynamic program also allows high school students to earn tuition-free course credits that can transfer to four-year universities or workforce credentials.

Collaboration is the root of the growth seen in North Carolina. Counties should invite community colleges to the table when thinking about what kind of businesses they want to attract, their growing workforce, and serving residents. For example, suppose a county wants to expand broadband connectivity for residents. In that case, there first needs to be a locally trained workforce established to maintain the fiber.

Counties must have an eye on the future to understand the needs of future generations and keep up with the rapid pace of technological change. Community colleges are highly adaptable partners that can work with counties to carve out a pathway for future economic development and workforce support.

NCCCS Chief of Staff Kim Gold shared her sentiments, “The North Carolina Community College System appreciates the partnership and support of counties. Our success is mutual, and we would like to continue working together to increase residents’ quality of life. As we look to the future, I encourage counties to continue advocating for community colleges and the students we serve.”

To learn more about the North Carolina community colleges, programs, or apprenticeships offered near you, visit

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