RALEIGH (April 24, 2023) – For the new president of North Carolina’s Community College System, community colleges are about meeting employers’ needs. But most important of all, they’re about economic mobility for students.
Dr. Jeff Cox, currently President of Wilkes Community College, will become President on July 1 of the NC Community College System,1 which served nearly 575,000 students last year.2 A native of Alleghany County, Cox has served as a teacher, principal, superintendent and community-college president.
At a news conference Monday, Cox spoke about a girl named Monica he first met when she was in elementary school in Alleghany County. She later graduated from Alleghany High School as Cox rose through the education ranks himself.
And he was the president of Wilkes Community College when she graduated from Wilkes with a nursing degree.
“Dr. Cox, I just never imagined I could have this kind of life,” she told him. She had thought she’d become a waitress in a Mexican restaurant. She now works as a nurse – which you might have heard is in demand these days.
“Doing great – livin’ the American Dream,” Cox said. “That’s what community colleges do, folks.”
In North Carolina and the South, “If you’re born poor, there’s a two-out-of-three chance you’re going to stay poor,” he said. “I think our community colleges are at the very heart of changing that statistic.
“How do we change that to a two-out-of-three chance of climbing out of poverty? That needs to be this state’s legacy.
“We’ve got businesses and industry who are yearning to have qualified employees, and we’ve got folks who are living in poverty who are yearning for a better tomorrow. And our community colleges are the bridge between those two.”
Some 30-40% of high-school graduates in the state don’t pursue education beyond high school, he said.
“That’s a crisis,” Cox said. “We have to find a better way to connect with those young people and help them understand their economic vitality depends on them getting that post-secondary credential.
“We know that 7 out of 10 jobs in the new economy require some kind of degree.” And not necessarily a four-year degree, he added.
COX NOTED THAT North Carolina was ranked No. 1 in the country for business last year.3 But he said the state can remain No. 1 only if it can continue to supply the workforce employers need.
“The target right out of the gate is business and industry,” he said. “Every single business and industry in this state has a community college no more than 30 minutes away that they could be partnering with.”
Elected officials from both parties, including Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican State Superintendent Catherine Truitt, were on hand to welcome Cox as the system president. Cooper noted that the state’s community colleges have adapted to rapid changes in training and education.
“It’s been more important than ever for our community colleges to adapt to these new kinds of jobs we’ve created,” he said. “The top three things that CEOs are interested in these days are workforce, workforce and workforce.”
AT WILKES COMMUNITY COLLEGE, Cox oversaw a process that increased students’ completion rates from 25% to 55% in just five astounding years.
Following a dramatic loss in population after Lowe’s moved its headquarters to Mooresville, the college worked with the community and philanthropic partners – many the families of former Lowe’s executives – to adopt a strategic plan designed to get more high school graduates to go to college, place counselors in high schools that feed the college, then connect students with jobs in the digital economy.4
And it created a nonprofit – NC Tech Paths – whose slogan is “Live. Train. Remain.” to help students with those job placements.5
Because tuition at the community college was a financial barrier for many, the school raised more than $9 million to guarantee that every student in Wilkes, Alleghany and Ashe counties could go to college tuition-free, Cox said.
“I think a lot of it can be replicated,” he said Monday of other colleges. “It’s a big number. But there’s a lot of resources across this state.”
COX BECOMES PRESIDENT of the Community College System after considerable turnover – including interim presidents, he will be the system’s eighth president in eight years.
He pledged to bring stability to the office.
Citing that turnover and what one senator described as a lack of effort by some colleges to collaborate with business, though, the state Senate moved legislation in recent days that would give the General Assembly final say on who is hired as the Community College System President.
It would also strip the Governor’s Office of its power to appoint members of both the State Board of Community Colleges and the Board of Trustees at each of the 58 community colleges. And it would grant the System President power to fire presidents at the individual colleges.6
Cox sidestepped a question Monday about the legislation, calling it “an opportunity for discussion.”
But as for colleges hesitating to partner with businesses, “For all of us – for every single college … we’ve got to double down on our efforts,” he said. “Whatever it’s been, we’ve got to ramp it up further – we’ve got to engage with business and industry.
“A whole lot of this … is about relationship-building.”
BURR SULLIVAN, Chair of the State Board of Community Colleges, which hired Cox following a nationwide search after Thomas Stith III resigned last July, noted that Cox is president of the NC Association of Community College Presidents.
“Dr. Cox is a leader among his peers,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said the state’s community colleges represent the future of North Carolina’s economy. And he added, using (very) round numbers, that North Carolina has 2½ million Democrats, 2½ million Republicans, and 2½ million independent voters.
“They want us to be working together – and we are,” Sullivan said.
4 https://www.higheredworks.org/2022/06/wilkes-lifting-a-generation-out-of-poverty/; https://www.higheredworks.org/2022/06/the-groundwork-a-plan-and-philanthropic-partners/.
6 https://www.ncleg.gov/Sessions/2023/Bills/Senate/PDF/S692v2.pdf; https://www.higheredworks.org/2023/04/lawmakers-nibble-nibble-nibble-at-governors-powers/