North Carolina’s community colleges are putting the finishing touches on a sweeping curriculum review, the sort that perhaps only a strong, centralized system could pull off.
The project  is an attempt to update course offerings and program tracks to better tie them to the state’s energy economy, particularly green jobs. It will result in a wave of program consolidation across the 58-college system, as well as the elimination of almost 100 systemwide courses. The new curriculums will also feature a new “stackable” system of credentials, which are designed to be more seamless as workers go back and forth between jobs and community college.
The overarching goal is to make degree and certificate holders “more employable,” said Randy Durren, a curriculum coordinator and biotechnology instructor at Piedmont Community College.
For that to happen, faculty leaders and administrators decided the colleges needed to adopt systemwide curriculums requiring core skills and competencies that employers want. That also pays off for the system, or so the thinking goes, through more efficient and less redundant course offerings.
“Our goal was not to create one-off programs” at individual campuses, said Scott Ralls, the system’s president. “It’s a curriculum that cuts across 58 colleges.”
The system conducts similar reviews every couple years, and tackled nursing in a recent overhaul. But this one was bigger.
The program, named the Code Green Super Curriculum Improvement Project, affects academic areas related to building, energy, environment, transportation and engineering technology. More than 80 curriculum standards were consolidated into 32 revised ones, based on "career clusters" like architecture and construction technology  (see box).
The new pathways all start with a general education core. They infuse industry-recognized credentials, competencies and learning outcomes. To do that, faculty members had to be trained and, in many cases, earn new certifications themselves. The project led to the creation of 47 new systemwide course, revisions to 219 and the elimination of 92 (although material for those courses will be “archived” in case they return at some point).
Architecture and construction technology curriculum, leading to 64-credit associate in applied science degree:
General education core (15 credits): communications, leadership development, principles of microeconomics and mathematical measurements
Technical education core (12 credits): building codes, print reading (construction), planning and estimating, green building and design concepts
Architectural technology core (12 credits): introduction to architectural technology, architectural CAD, research architectural technology and environmental systems
Major electives (25 credits): courses within architectural technology major
About 90 curriculums were on the table when the process began, said Robert (Butch) Grove, dean of sustainability at Wake Tech College, the project’s manager. Ralls said, “Let’s do them all,” according to Grove. So more than 200 faculty members from across the system figured out how to make that happen over a series of meetings.
“This was accomplished by working together as a system,” Grove said.
On the 'Same Road'
Approved in August by the system’s governing board, the curriculum shift is starting this fall.
Faculty ownership was crucial, several system officials said. But the central office got the ball rolling.
Broad academic redesigns are possible at decentralized community college systems, said Shanna Smith Jaggars, an assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College of Columbia University. For example, she said New Jersey’s mostly-autonomous community colleges recently increased standardization around remedial education.
However, it’s much harder for a non-centralized system to follow North Carolina’s example, Jaggars said, mostly because colleges would have to volunteer to work on sometimes painful coordination.
“The colleges all have to agree that they’re going to do this,” she said. But in a strong system, “you can create a more coherent policy, and more comprehensive.”
Durren said some faculty members were nervous when they heard about the project. But that anxiety subsided, thanks in part to the strong faculty role in decision making. Instructors could see the common sense of streamlining curriculums, he said, as well as how that standardization could give students a leg up as they attempt to join the workforce.
“It helped us all to go down the same road,” said Keith Elliott, an electronics instructor at Rockingham Community College, who worked on the project. And faculty members learned a lot from working with their counterparts across the state, he said.
Durren agreed. "That's the beauty of the North Carolina system," he said. "We can get help from each other."
Many of the new green jobs curriculums feature stackable credentials, starting with certificates students can earn with as few as 12 to 18 credits. Those credentials, which were designed with the help of industry representatives, like the National Manufacturing Institute , should demonstrate that students have enough core competencies to get entry-level jobs. Students can then continue working toward a degree, or return to any North Carolina community college years down the road without facing problems with credit transferability.
An associate degree in applied science at the state’s community colleges often requires 76 credits. The problem for students who drop out before getting there, Grove said, is that “they might have nothing to show for it.” With stackable certificates and degrees, however, “anywhere along the line the student would have a credential.”
Those energy-related credentials now have standardized pathways, built on a technical core. And addressed along with that core are “employability competencies,” Grove said, like the teaching of teamwork and how to be dependable on the job -- a must for entry-level certificates.
“We have defined what those soft skills look like,” he said. “That’s something industry has been asking us for for years.”
The system also created competency-based courses that line up with non-credit courses, so that students can earn credits after taking those non-credit courses by demonstrating mastery of competencies. And as part of the project, they incorporated current thinking on what constitutes preferred learning outcomes on green jobs to all of the revised courses.
Standarzation can be tricky, said several system officials, and includes an inherent tension. For example, nobody wants manufacturing competencies rammed into a degree program that works for employers in one end of the state, but not in another. To navigate that balance, faculty members built flexibility into the new curriculums. And while introductory credentials will come standard at all North Carolina community colleges, degree programs can diverge academically, based the judgment of faculty at individual colleges.
The state’s two-year system may be particularly well-suited to walking the fine line between flexibility and central control, said Jaggars. The ideal set-up allows faculty to work through questions about curriculums, she said, while also having a “statewide fiat” to keep inertia from setting in.
For states with less coherent systems, like Texas or California, it’s never easy to move toward a stronger central office, Jaggars said. That’s because individual colleges generally don’t like to share control. But she says she hopes other states will take notice the examples of North Carolina and Virginia, which also has a coordinated community college system.
“Look at the advantages when you have a good system office,” she said.