Free community college tuition would be available to recent high school students under the N.C. GROW (Getting Ready for Opportunities in the Workforce) scholarship program in Gov. Roy Cooper's budget proposal.
Cooper touted the scholarship plan and the role community colleges play in workforce development following a Wednesday morning tour of Wayne Community College's computer integrated machining and mechatronics programs.
"When I talk to the CEOs of companies, not only across North Carolina, but across the country, the first question they ask me is, 'Do you have the people who can perform the jobs that I create? Do you have a skilled workforce?'" Cooper said. "For the kind of jobs that we want that question comes before even, 'What kind of economic incentives do you have? What is your tax structure?
"We think that people ought to be able to get community college tuition. My proposal says if you are making good grades, and have at least a 2.0 coming out of high school and that you have applied for all of the scholarships and grants that you get free community college tuition because we want you to get that degree, and we want you to have the education that you need going into the workforce."
In some cases, middle class students are not eligible for some of those existing grants and scholarships, he said.
NC GROW would be good for the state and for families, particularly middle class families who are struggling with the cost of higher education, he said.
It is also good for the economy and would help it expand because the more skilled workers available, the better the economy is going to be, Cooper said.
Lottery proceeds would be used to fund the program, Cooper said.
The governor said he is aware of local county commission and school board concerns about lottery money being diverted to other uses.
But Cooper said he thinks more advertising could boost participation in the lottery, resulting in more revenues to work with.
Cooper said he wants the state to focus on education and that is why he was visiting Wayne Community College.
The visit, he said, was to show his support for what already is happening at the college and to let college officials know that he is going to push hard to ensure it is an education budget for the future of the state.
Cooper, a Democrat, was asked about the Republican-led General Assembly's skepticism of his budget proposal.
"I do believe, even though we have a number of high-profile disagreements with the Republican leadership, there are areas where we can find common ground and are finding common ground," he said. "One of those is economic development. One of those is teachers' salaries.
"I think the Republican leadership recognizes the value of our community colleges. They hear from the CEOs as well. We are working to try and attract some companies to our state that are going to provide some good-paying jobs. But a skilled workforce is critical."
Republicans still want to cut corporate taxes and give tax breaks to those in the upper-income level, he said.
But that hurts the state's ability to invest in education, Cooper said.
Cooper said the budget he has put forth offers "common ground solutions" and emphasizes education from birth through community colleges and universities.
Ensuring North Carolina is one of the top-10 education states by 2025 is his goal, Cooper said.
"We do that by getting more of our kids in pre-K, early childhood is so important," he said. "We do that by getting a greater percentage of our people graduating from high school, and we do that by getting a greater percentage of our population with advanced degrees beyond high school because most of these jobs are going to take advanced degrees, certificates -- education beyond high school.
"If we can create the skilled workforce like we see being created here at Wayne Community College, then we can get more companies to come here, to expand here. We can get more small businesses to grow."
Cooper said he is encouraging members of chambers of commerce and members of the business community to use their political capital to say that the state has done a lot with its tax structure over the last five or six years, but that now it is time to catch up on investments -- education, community colleges to ensure people have the kind of education that is important.
"We are going to work it," he said. "We are going to fight and hopefully public opinion can win the day. If we do tax cuts, they should be targeted at the middle class -- families who need it the most right now.
"Many are treading water. They do not see an improvement in their lives, and they are looking for something better. They are the ones who need the tax breaks. They are the ones who need the education and the better jobs."
Cooper arrived during the college's 25th annual job fair, stopping to shake hands, chat and pose for photos.
He stopped mid-tour for photos with several different groups of students.
During his tour of the computer integrated machining classroom, Cooper was presented with a freshly machined card holder inscribed with "Gov. Roy Cooper."
Wayne Community College President Dr. Thomas Walker thanked Cooper for his comments and support of education.
"For over six decades now not only Wayne Community College, but our other 57 community colleges across the state have been delivering cutting-edge technological training for our students," he said.
"One of impediments for students is often cost. In addition much of the things that we just witnessed, mechatronics, lathes, CNC machines -- this is not inexpensive equipment."
But as Cooper said, the future of the state and particular of Wayne County rests in the ability to train its workforce, Walker said.
Not only that, the college's students are the face of Wayne County's future because most will remain in the area, he said.