The incoming president of North Carolina's community college system pledged Monday to work to advance people toward economic success through post-secondary education that will also meet employers' needs for high-skilled labor.

Jeff Cox, the current president of Wilkes Community College, spoke at an introductory news conference three days after the state system's board chose him as the top executive for the 58-college system, which educates nearly 600,000 students annually. He's expected to officially begin the job on July 1. There's been an interim president in place since last summer, when predecessor Thomas Stith resigned after 18 months.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and others attending the event called Cox a great person for the job, citing in part his career as a former public school teacher and principal, and as the head of Alleghany County schools before becoming the Wilkes president in 2014. Cooper and other speakers emphasized the need for K-12 schools and community colleges to work closely to train future workers.

“The guy that the board has hired knows it all,” Cooper said. “It makes sense that this board decided that he should lead this community college system into the future. I’m excited about your tenure, Jeff.” State schools Superintendent Catherine Truitt, a Republican, also praised his hiring.

An Alleghany County native, Cox talked about his commitment for the system to bring more North Carolina citizens out of poverty. Across much of the state, he said, people who are born poor have a two-in-three chance of staying poor as an adult.

“Our community colleges are at the very heart of changing that statistic and reversing that,” Cox said. “We’ve got businesses and industry who are yearning to have qualified employees, and we’ve got folks who are living in poverty who are yearning for a better tomorrow."

At the same time, between 30% and 40% of the state's high school graduates aren't seeking any additional schooling, he said.

“We have to find a better way to connect with those young people and help them understand their economic vitality depends on them getting that post-secondary credential," he said.

Members of the State Board of Community Colleges, which hired him after a national search, appeared to be impressed with such efforts at Wilkes Community College. Friday's news release announcing his hiring cited a student program completion rate that more than doubled over five years, record fundraising and the start of an initiative to guarantee students a chance to receive a tuition-free education.

A system spokesperson said Monday Cox will make $350,000 annually.

Cox's hiring comes amid recent instability at the system office in Raleigh, high vacancy rates systemwide and efforts by Republican lawmakers to overhaul the system's governance. Cox will be the fifth permanent system president since 2015.

The legislation, which could get a full Senate vote this week, would give the president's position more power while eliminating the governor's ability to appoint almost half of the state board and many local trustee board positions. The legislators ultimately would elect all state board members and pick most of the campus board members. Cooper's office has said doing away with the governor's appointments would “damage significantly” job-recruiting efforts.

Cox said he couldn't respond to criticisms by GOP senators that there's an impression campuses have fallen short in helping employers seek trained workers, saying he didn't know specifics.

“We've got great presidents out there leading the 58," he said. “I know their hearts are in it to fix it in their communities.”

Copyright 2023 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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