Is It Time To Reskill To Pay The Bills?

A scholarship program in North Carolina provides more than $1 million annually to statewide community colleges for continuing education and career planning.

 
 

Top-Level Takeaways

  • State Employees’ Credit Union's Foundation runs a scholarship program designed to help unemployed or underemployed populations access higher paying jobs with real career potential.
  • A full 56 out of the state’s 58 community colleges participate in the program.

With 58 community colleges throughout the state, North Carolina boasts one of the largest community college systems in the country. For decades, SECU Foundation has provided two-year scholarships to students enrolling in that vast network, but on the heels of the Great Recession, the organization seized on another opportunity — serving the large population of North Carolinians looking to reskill or retool to become more competitive in a challenging work environment.

In 2013, SECU Foundation — an arm of State Employees’ Credit Union ($49.9B, Raleigh, NC) established to address community issues that are beyond the normal scope of the credit union — launched its Continuing Education Scholarship Program.

Community colleges could access up to 10 $750 scholarships per year to help students pay the costs of class. Five years into the program, the foundation realized a growing number of its scholarships were going untapped.

“We went to our friends in the community college system to understand why these weren’t being used as widely as they once were and what we could do to make it better,” says Jama Campbell, senior vice president and executive director of SECU Foundation.

For six months, the foundation worked with the central system office as well as individual schools to devise a plan to reinvigorate the program. In 2018, it introduced the SECU Bridge to Career program designed to help remove financial barriers for students earning state-regulated or industry-recognized credentials that lead to sustainable wage careers within their communities.

Jama Campbell, SVP/Executive Director, SECU Foundation

In this Q&A, Campbell discusses the need for the SECU Bridge to Career program, how it works, and how she grades its success.

Why did you turn the Continuing Education Scholarship program into the Bridge to Career program?

Jama Campbell: In our conversations with the community college system and the individual schools, we determined there needed to be a pathway for wage-sustaining work. That’s the heart of it: These individuals needed the skills to attain higher-paying jobs that have the potential for professional growth. Hence the name.

We are providing careers for people in our communities, and we’re doing that by doubling our investment — providing up to $1 million in funding for this program.

How does the program work?

JC: The program provides each of the 58 community colleges in our state system up to 30 scholarships per year at $500 for certain educational pathways. In addition, we provide the school $3,000 to pay a navigator. So that’s up to $18,000 per school, per year.

A navigator is someone in the community college system who helps with resume writing, interviewing skills, and finding jobs. That’s an important part of this. It’s not just about the scholarship, it’s about having a local person who can help you navigate the job search process.

What are pathways? Why are they a consideration?

JC: The needs in every community are different, and the colleges want programs to help their graduates find new and emerging jobs in their local area. The big ones are healthcare, electrical engineering, truck driving, and public safety, but there could be a new manufacturing plant opening with jobs for people with certain skills or certification. The college could set up a pathway that makes its graduates more competitive for that specific employer.

Because it can be location-based, each year we reach out to all of our 58 community colleges for a list of pathways — usually three or fewer — or other focuses and how they would use the funding to make them a reality. This program is much more focused on the needs of an individual community than what we offered before.

So, each of those colleges have different needs?

JC: Each of these schools are very different. Some colleges have more resources than others, which can have significant affects. That’s why we’ve tried to gear this program to fit the smaller, more rural community colleges as well as the larger colleges in urban areas. The key is allowing each college to develop their own pathways for students; providing that $3,000 can be an incentive to do this work.

Did you have relationships with all 58 colleges when you started the new program?

JC: The 2018-2019 school year was our pilot year. Instead of onboarding all 58 schools at once, we started with 19 that could help us work out some of the details. We wanted to make sure we weren’t overburdening the schools; we wanted this to be easy and what they wanted.

It took a year for that first cohort of schools to figure out how it all worked and gather some best practices, but they’ve since been able to mentor the schools we’ve added. Each year we’ve added schools, and right now 56 out of the 58 colleges are participating.

CU QUICK FACTS

State Employees’ Credit Union
Data as of 06.30.21

HQ: Raleigh, NC
ASSETS: $49.9B
MEMBERS: 2,604,542
BRANCHES: 272
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 10.9%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: -1.6%
ROA: 1.14%

Who decides how to allocate the scholarship dollars?

JC: Because it’s such a large program, the foundation doesn’t choose the recipients. We rely on local decision-making to make it work.

At the start of each year, the community college system sends an RFP to all 58 colleges asking them to participate in the program. The college returns that to the community college system’s main office after outlining its plan for the year ahead. When the main office approves a college, we send the funds with the expectation it will report back to us at the end of the year what it accomplished with that money. We are a team of five who do foundation work at the credit union, so we wouldn’t have the bandwidth to do all that ourselves.

Do the colleges tend to use all the available funds?

JC: In any scholarship program there are some dollars that go unused. But these schools know what they’re doing and what works best for them, especially once they’ve been in the program for more than one year. They do a great job using those funds and reskilling individuals in their communities.

Use was one of the main reasons we retooled this program in the first place, but we believe the current iteration is meeting the needs of our community, especially with what is happening in our economy. There are many companies in our state or looking to move to our state, and we want our workforce to be prepared to take advantage of those opportunities when they come.

“The beauty of this program is that it gives people, regardless of where they live in the state, a real opportunity to find a career.”

Jama Campbell, SVP/Executive Director SECU Foundation, State Employees’ Credit Union

How will this program evolve?

JC: We’re going to continue to monitor it each year to see how the funds are being used or if there are any tweaks or enhancements we can make. Right now, it is meeting the need. The beauty of this program is that it gives people, regardless of where they live in the state, a real opportunity to find a career.

In the program’s first year, Forsyth Technical Community College used every one of its 30 scholarships. It had a pathway focused on electrical line workers, and it was graduating people who came out earning $80,000 or more. That’s a tough job, but it’s also a job that speaks to many people and allows them to stay in the community of their choice — not everyone wants to move to Raleigh or Charlotte.

How do you grade your success?

JC: It can be hard, especially for foundations. We can measure things, but I don’t know that we can really measure the human impact. Our $1 checking account fee is what funds all this work, and we try to make sure we are good fiduciaries of our members’ dollars.

We want to make sure every investment we make as a foundation is going to multiply. We look at how those schools are using the funds, who is receiving a scholarship, and we want to know what kind of impact it’s making in their life. The human stories are what is amazing — finding people who were unemployed or underemployed and helping them find impactful career opportunities. It’s amazing to see how this can impact families and communities. It is an investment for generations to come.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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