Opinion: Clarion Call

Call. 85: Community Colleges Make Case for Bigger Salaries

Anticipating a bumpy financial road during the next session of the General Assembly, leaders for the North Carolina Community College System this week couched their request for more money to boost faculty and staff salaries in careful terms.

As reported by Clarion Call last week, community colleges want $69 million to boost staff and faculty salaries to the national average within the next biennium and an additional $94.1 million to bring salaries within the 80th percentile of comparative institutions in the following biennium.

But when making their case before lawmakers this week, community college leaders focused on raising faculty salaries only. They want $47.4 million to raise faculty salaries to the national average during the next biennium and an additional $50.9 million to bring faculty salaries within the 80th percentile of salaries at comparative systems during the following biennium.

Key legislators have said that raising salaries would be hard to do in a tight budget year. At a meeting of the legislative Education Oversight Committee on Tuesday, lawmakers reiterated those concerns as community colleges representatives made their case.

Kennon Briggs, vice president of Finance and Planning for the community college system, said salaries must be increased for community colleges to compete with the private sector.

“The questions is, with whom are we competing?” Briggs said. “We are competing with business and industry.” If community colleges want to recruit the best faculty, Briggs said, they would have to compete with pay offered elsewhere.

“You can’t have excellent community colleges when you rank 42nd in the nation in faculty salaries,” said Kent Caruthers of MGT of America, the independent consulting firm that compared faculty salaries at N.C. community colleges with salaries at similar systems in the southeast and across the United States.

But some committee members questioned that assertion, pointing to the current effectiveness of North Carolina’s community colleges. “We aren’t going to get a sudden bang for a $40 million buck,” Rep. Eugene Rogers, D-Martin, said. “We don’t need to just have bragging rights.”

Legislators said they had no doubt that faculty salaries were comparatively low. But they questioned how the increases would be implemented and whether it was necessary to raise salaries to the 80th percentile. The UNC system expects an enrollment increase of 48,000 students within the next decade, noted Sen. Robert Rucho, R-Mecklenburg. Any plan to increase overall faculty salaries should account for future enrollment, he said.

Another issue is how the increases would be apportioned, said Sen. Howard Lee, D-Orange, the committee’s chairman. The committee may want to build in financial incentives for credentialing, as is done in the public school system, Lee said.

Pope Center for Higher Education Policy Director George Leef suggested more research into the matter before enacting any legislation.

“Merely because faculty pay is at a comparatively low rank nationally does not by itself indicate that we have a problem with faculty compensation,” Leef said. “It’s one thing to say that community colleges might lose faculty members to the private sector, but the committee should insist on some evidence that a significant number of faculty members have left for jobs in the private sector and that the community colleges have been unable to replace them with other competent people.”

Neither the recitation of statistics nor theoretical predictions of an inability to compete should suffice,” he said.

The committee will continue discussion on the matter and should have recommendations to various appropriations committees next month.