This week, I spent time learning about NC’s Community College System and specifically about Wilkes Community College – Ashe Campus (WCC – Ashe Campus). In writing this post, I thought it was important to get student, instructor, and administration’s perspectives. In addition, I talked with a representative from business who relies on graduates to keep their plant running. I also learned everything is interconnected (education, industry, workforce, housing, daycare, transportation, medical services, leadership in communities, etc. The list goes on and on. It even includes agriculture as I have personally taken two excellent courses in beekeeping at WCC-Ashe Campus.)

The focus of this post is primarily to talk about what I learned about WCC-Ashe Campus. I plan to visit and write about the campuses of WCC – Alleghany Campus and Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute–Watauga Campus at a future date. As always, please accept my apology for repeating myself, but I want to make it clear that I’m on the road to listen and learn, not to pass judgment, and certainly never to say how things “should” be done…just traveling for my own education to better prepare me to be a state legislator.

Beginning with a History Lesson

With that in mind, I’ve always felt that it’s important for me to study some history before trying to learn about current and future. In 1963, the NC General Assembly adopted the Community College Act, which created the community college system. The system requires counties to fund the construction of facilities (often through bond referendums) and the State provides funding for faculty and administration. It’s a good example of a State and local cooperative arrangement, mutually beneficial to both.

I was able to tour the new WCC-Ashe Campus. If you haven’t visited it, I highly recommend you to go see where your tax dollars are being spent. There is no question that the new expansion is a phenomenal facility and the money was judiciously spent as it is an investment in the future of the High Country. The cost of the facility was approximately $12 million dollars with an additional $2 million for upfitting and equipment. $8 million was provided by Ashe County tax payers, $3 million from the NC Connect Bond, and $3 million was raised and donated by the generosity of businesses and folks of the High Country.

Meeting a Variety of Needs

So, we have a Community College System and a phenomenal facility. Let’s think about the role of the community college….education, which looks like an education triangle. The three corners are: 1. students enrolled in curriculum degree (Associates Degree), 2. non-credit continuing education, and 3. basic skills courses for adults.

WCC-Ashe provides education for EMS, fire fighters, law and public safety, nursing, health science, technology and information management, business administration, marketing, manufacturing….the list and educational opportunities are endless. There are several programs for high school students to get college credits or even enroll in early college. There are programs to help individuals get their GED’s. There’s a Division on Workforce Development and Community Education for life-long learning for individuals in both occupational and vocational areas. And it’s all local, right here in Jefferson, NC!

So, what about the cost? It’s approximately $3,600 / year. This compares to average cost of $25,000 / year for tuition and living expenses to attend a NC public university or approximately $37,000 (average cost) for a private university. Based on this data, it would appear that WCC-Ashe Campus is definitely affordable and a bargain. At WCC-Ashe, many of the students are first generation college students and 67-68% receive Pell grants.

Competing for Excellence

To help ensure the quality of education, instructors in curriculums are required to have a master’s degree and also be nationally board certified. Community College instructors are dedicated, committed, and love teaching because they certainly can’t be in it for the money. Salaries in NC are some of the lowest in the country. In the southeast, NC is ranked 12th out of 13 states from the bottom for salaries. In hiring, Community College administrators must compete with the public schools whose teachers are on a 10-month contract, while community college instructors are on 9-month contracts. In addition, many counties pay bonuses to supplement their public-school teachers. Over the last 4 years, instructors have only received 1 ½% in total raises from the General Assembly. In addition, community college instructors do not have tenure.

So, what did I learn? We, the citizens of Ashe County, are fortunate to have WCC-Ashe Campus in Jefferson! It’s local, affordable, and provides high quality education, continuing education, and critical training for a variety of life saving services in the county. Community colleges are the backbone in economic development and are an integral part of bringing industry, small businesses, and entrepreneurs to the High Country.

Background History: According to the Wilkes Community College website, “The Ashe Campus in Jefferson originally started offering CE classes in 1975, and curriculum courses in the late seventies through the local high schools. In 1985 a new facility was opened. The Ashe Campus was elevated to multi-campus status in 2008. The facility underwent renovations and additions in 1996 and 2005. The Ashe County Early College High School opened on the Ashe Campus in 2018. A groundbreaking ceremony was held in August 2019 for the expansion of the Ashe Campus which includes two additional buildings with a completion date of May 2021.”