With 58 schools that enroll more than 800,000 students annually, the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS) is the third largest system of higher education in the nation. The prospect of getting such a large and complex system to align on anything would strike many as unrealistic. Yet, NCCCS’ efforts to establish a strategic focus on access, excellence, and success has permeated the priorities of both the System Office and institutions throughout the state. NCCCS has achieved more than mission-alignment, however: Over the almost five years since the system launched its SuccessNC initiative, hundreds of faculty, staff, and administrators have been involved in developing and implementing programs to meet system-wide goals for improving student outcomes.

In a new Ithaka S+R case study, “Reshaping System Culture at the North Carolina Community College System,” Jessie Brown and Richard Spies outline the process through which SuccessNC accomplished this culture change, and tease out some of the lessons it presents for other systems engaged in large-scale reform.

NCCCS’ continued success in developing consensus for system-wide initiatives is due in large part to the distinctive approach it has taken to designing and implementing reforms, and the well-defined roles that have been established for both the System Office and individual institutions. As NCCCS has implemented SuccessNC, the System Office has set priorities, delivered the framework for policies and investments, kept institutions accountable, and provided arenas for sharing, feedback, and inter-institutional support. Individual institutions have acted as collaborators in the design of initiatives and have fleshed out system-wide policies with a fair amount of local flexibility. The institutions that have been most successful in doing this have taken ownership of these policies, tailored them towards their students’ needs, and integrated them with their own homegrown initiatives, strategic visions, and campus cultures.

In order to illustrate this dynamic more concretely, the case study details the development of Developmental Education Initiative (DEI), a system-wide redesign of North Carolina’s Developmental Math, Reading, and English curricula.  The experience of implementing DEI has helped NCCCS expand its capacity to integrate system-wide initiatives into each institution’s highest-priority planning, while engaging stakeholders from across the state in a long-term conversation about student success.