The ancient Blue Ridge Mountains rise in the background, but from Peter Hans' view, it's the future of Tar Heel education that's on display here. On the campus of Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute in Hudson, about 60 high-school students will graduate in 2019 with half the credits needed for a two-year degree.
After another year, graduates of Caldwell Career Center Middle College will be trained to go directly into career-track jobs or can transfer credits to one of the state's 60-plus universities and colleges offering four-year degrees.
"We have to provide as many education opportunities as possible for as many North Carolinians as possible," says Hans, who became the ninth president of the 697,000-student community-college system in May. Caldwell underscores his goal to "simplify, align and accelerate" higher education.
"Forecasts show North Carolina is going to need about two-thirds of its workforce to have credentials beyond high school within a decade," Hans says. "We know that's about 40% now." Programs such as Caldwell's--Hans says about 44,000 students are enrolled in them statewide now--can also help mitigate the 2017 average student debt of nearly $26,000 in North Carolina for a four-year degree.
With a budget of about $1.6 billion --about $1.2 billion from the state, the remainder from fees, local taxes, federal and other sources--it's one of the state's largest fiscal commitments. No wonder, then, that it's not immune from politics. Just ask Hans' predecessor, Jimmie Williamson, who held the job a little over a year before the system's board ousted him mid-2017.
"They were looking for a political appointment," says Williamson, who notes he was never told why he was forced to resign. "I was set up for failure, and I'm too talented to sit around and play with that level of foolishness." He now heads a staffing company based in Columbia, S.C.
Hans, on the other hand, has backing from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Republicans Senate President Pro Tern Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore. Hans was picked from about 30 candidates, including finalist Walter Dalton, who is president of Isothermal Community College in Spindale.
The move came two years after Hans was a finalist for the UNC System presidency, a job claimed by former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings after an intense search process. Reflecting Hans' strong political connections, Spellings hired him as an adviser in 2016 at an annual salary...