With generous support from the John M. Belk Endowment (JMBE), the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research was established in 2020 to develop and sustain exceptional community college leaders committed to advancing equitable college access and student success outcomes, the social and economic mobility of their colleges’ students, and the economic competitiveness of their regions. Since its inception, the Belk Center has made exceptional strides in pursuit of its mission and in accordance with several of NC State University’s strategic goals.
Below, we reflect on the university strategic goals that are most closely tied to Belk Center programs and initiatives.
The Belk Center’s mission to advance the social and economic mobility of North Carolina’s community college students fits squarely within the University’s goal to serve the citizens of our state as a land-grant university. Executive leadership programs are a centerpiece of the Belk Center’s work in this domain, as they equip college presidents with the knowledge, tools, and networks necessary to meet the distinct needs of their regions. Programs are offered throughout each academic year that address timely and relevant issues facing presidents across the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS). For example, at the height of the pandemic, five virtual “Critical Conversations” enabled presidents to discuss how to ensure equitable student outcomes in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic and make good use of federal CARES Act funding. Last year alone, our executive leader programs yielded 229 touchpoints with community college presidents.
A distinctive feature of the Belk Center’s leadership development efforts is its attentiveness to the needs of new presidents. To this end, we recently developed a series of short videos introducing incoming leaders to the NCCCS:
We also held an orientation program for new presidents last January in partnership with the North Carolina Association of Community College Presidents. The program drew from content expertise of college presidents and their colleagues in the NCCCS.
A related strength of the Belk Center is our ability to unify disparate leadership development efforts that exist across North Carolina’s community colleges by encouraging collaboration and synergy. This work is manifest in our teaching and learning “hubs,” developed in conjunction with Achieving the Dream (ATD) and North Carolina’s Student Success Center. The hubs offer professional development programs in virtual and face-to-face settings to help educators learn about, adapt, test, and scale evidence-based strategies to improve student success. The hubs are located in two different regions and respond to local needs using data from assessments the Belk Center research team administered to community college faculty and chief academic officers across the state.
Finally, the Belk Center is extending NC State University’s reach across the state through a 3-year initiative focused on community colleges serving at least one rural county. Made possible with support from the Ascendium Education Group and ATD, the Rural College Leaders program is currently equipping presidents, senior leadership teams, and trustees from 10 institutions to improve student outcomes and equity in rural North Carolina.
The Belk Center has a robust research agenda designed to meet the needs our partners face in the field—and we use research findings to engage those partners in data-driven decision making. Since our inception, we have provided all 58 community colleges across the state with myriad reports and briefs addressing policy and practice to improve student success outcomes on their campuses. Last year, we wrote 104 customized reports for NCCCS institutions primarily addressing teaching and learning and transfer issues. Members of our faculty and staff also delivered customized reports to more than 40 institutions within and beyond North Carolina as part of our ongoing administration of the PACE Climate Survey for Community Colleges and presented their research at more than 20 local, regional, and national conferences.
Our 2021 comprehensive report on college access support services showcases our strength when it comes to tackling problems of practice through research. The report highlighted operations, available resources, and reach of organizations that provide college and career access support to North Carolina’s high school students. It highlighted where students are receiving substantial support, where there are gaps in services, and opportunities and challenges for college and career decision making brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, the report surfaced effective tools for evaluating college access support services and possible inter-organizational collaborations that would help college and career access organizations better serve students.
If the Belk Center is to achieve maximum impact in community college research and scholarship, knowledge production among our faculty and staff is not enough. Rather, we must also play an active role cultivating new and emerging scholars in the field. To this end, we engage students from NC State University’s Community College Leadership Ed.D. doctoral program in relevant and responsive research conducted at the Belk Center and through programs like the Postsecondary Career and Technical Education (CTE) Research Fellows program. Fellows benefit from participation in various training institutes and webinars, ECMC’s CTE Leadership Collaborative, and a research mentorship program.
The Belk Center’s emphasis on actionable research is also regularly reflected in Ed.D. students’ dissertations, and our full-time writing and data coach offers support to students and recent graduates interested in translating their dissertations into research briefs. These briefs make findings and practical recommendations more accessible to practitioners, policymakers, and community members, thus facilitating data-driven decision making in a timely manner. Research briefs afford emerging scholars a unique opportunity to expediently share their dissertations with the wider public. Staff at the Belk Center have created resources, including templates and a virtual training session, to help interested individuals complete briefs, which are then published on the Belk Center’s website and promoted via social media.
Core to the Belk Center’s success is our dedication to identifying shared interests and cultivating strong, mutually-beneficial relationships with a diverse array of stakeholders. Our efforts have led to innovative partnerships within and beyond the state. For example, in collaboration with the NCCCS, UNC System Office (UNCSO), North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities (NCICU), myFutureNC, and the legislatively-mandated Transfer Advisory Committee, the Belk Center convened three working groups during the past year to devise recommendations for a) key transfer policy and practice implementation, and b) how to share data and address research questions across organizations. Another partnership known as NC Reconnect—this one involving JMBE, myfutureNC, and 10 North Carolina community colleges—focused on identifying effective strategies for reaching and supporting adult learners.
The Belk Center is also characterized by an entrepreneurial mindset; leaders regularly seek ways to elevate the Center’s visibility as a centralized source of community college research, expertise, and networking. One way we have done so is by leveraging the longstanding annual Dallas Herring Lecture. The 2021 event was the largest and most accessible to date, garnering more than 900 registrants and convening 80 in-person attendees from within and beyond North Carolina to learn from Dr. Gregory Haile, President of Broward College in Florida. Attendees were also afforded an opportunity to build professional connections as they collectively imagined solutions to what Haile called “converging crises facing our communities—economic disruption, a racial reckoning, and the pandemic.”
In the area of applied problem-solving, the Belk Center furthers university goals by providing customized services to community college leaders that draw on our wealth of empirical and experiential knowledge in the field. We have facilitated learning sessions at several colleges to enhance the effectiveness of key stakeholders like trustees and supervisors. Additionally, we offer tailored evaluation services to facilitate context-specific decision making. Based on our 2021 report on college access support services, our researchers are conducting a deeper analysis of career coaching and college access programs (e.g., College Advising Corps, Gear Up, Upward Bound) available in the counties served by Wilkes Community College. Findings will be used to identify best practices for program implementation as well as gaps in local services.
Perhaps most substantially, we have helped design and implement strategic planning processes on eight campuses. Our work in this area has included consulting with college presidents, facilitating discussions with executive leadership teams to help them create strategic planning roadmaps, and recommending tools, resources, promising practices, and evidence-based strategies. One client and community college president had this to say about our services:
“We recently signed an agreement with the Belk Center to facilitate our strategic planning process—including a review of our mission, vision, and values—as we seek broad stakeholder input in determining our direction for the next five to 10 years. Having access to accomplished current and former community college presidents, as well as experts in governance, planning, and success initiatives, has provided our faculty, staff, and trustees with the objectivity and confidence needed to develop and model effective support of student and community success.”
Undergirding all other Belk Center efforts is our commitment to advancing equitable college access and student success outcomes. The support we provide to presidents, the partnerships we build, and the research we conduct are all directed at achieving this aim. In 2020, we developed the following commitments to make our efforts more explicit:
The Belk Center espouses these commitments in its myriad research initiatives. For example, equity-focused case studies have been conducted at colleges that exhibit promise in their approaches to supporting Black, Latin*, and American Indian students (e.g., based on review of college-level enrollment data, 3-year graduation rates, graduation rates for Pell-eligible students). Case study findings have provided rich insights into policies and practices that advance equitable student outcomes. Our transfer research similarly exemplifies the Belk Center’s commitment to equity by quantitatively analyzing students’ pathways through community college and their graduation outcomes with a special focus on how race, socioeconomic status, gender, and geography influence those pathways and outcomes.
Our equity policy review team oversees a programmatic effort that helps advance a culture of equity, diversity, and inclusion at North Carolina community colleges. Using the 2021 NCCCS Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force Final Report as a guide, this team of five higher education scholars from diverse institutions (Durham Technical Community College, Howard University, NC State University, Ohio University, and William & Mary) works collaboratively with community college leaders to review their college policies with an eye toward the following:
After completing reviews, the team identifies policy-related inequities that may limit opportunities for underrepresented students, faculty, and staff, and offers recommendations for policy changes.
The NCCCS History Project Trailblazer Profiles History Project serves as yet another example of the Belk Center’s impactful work in the area of diversity, equity, and inclusion. As leaders of this initiative, we collected oral histories of current and former Black, Latin*, Asian, and Indigenous community college leaders in North Carolina and made them available to the public. The project celebrates the contributions of presidents who come from historically underrepresented groups, centers their stories in the larger narrative of community college excellence in North Carolina, and inspires the development of a more diverse presidential leadership pipeline.