Healthier Learning, Healthier Communities

The Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust is working with community colleges in North Carolina to explore how these institutions can play a role in improving community health and contribute to the goals of the Trust’s Healthy Places NC initiative. Launched in 2012, Healthy Places is investing up to $100 million to improve the health of residents in 10 to 12 of North Carolina’s rural, financially disadvantaged counties, many of which are home to high rates of obesity, diabetes, and other serious health conditions. Healthy Places grantmaking is driven by community concerns, as well as the Trust’s assessment of the prospect for sustainable, long-term change. Funded projects originate from the community because local leaders know best what they and their neighbors need to lead healthier lives. To date, the Trust’s Healthy Places initiative has invested in Halifax, Beaufort, McDowell, Rockingham, Burke, Edgecombe and Nash counties.

The role of community colleges, particularly in rural areas, extends beyond the academic. Rural community colleges are often the only postsecondary institution in their community, and as such serve as a workforce trainer, employer, community convener, cultural ambassador, and change agent. In each of these capacities, community colleges are positioned to make significant contributions to improving the health and wellness of community residents.  

The seven community colleges serving counties where Healthy Places grantmaking is underway play these roles and more.  To better leverage the positive impact of these institutions on the communities they serve, the Trust brought in MDC to investigate and analyze the colleges’ current and potential roles in improving health outcomes and influencing healthy behaviors.

MDC is a North Carolina-based nonprofit organization that has been publishing research and developing programs focused on expanding opportunity, reducing poverty, and addressing structural inequity for nearly 50 years.

The seven colleges are:

Beaufort County Community College (Washington)
Edgecombe Community College (Tarboro)
Halifax Community College (Weldon)
McDowell Technical Community College (Marion)
Nash Community College (Rocky Mount)*
Rockingham Community College (Wentworth)
Western Piedmont Community College (Morganton)
The analysis consisted of two main activities. MDC first brought together representatives of the colleges, including four college presidents, to Winston-Salem for a two-day meeting. During the meeting these leaders learned about Healthy Places’ efforts in their communities and discussed  how the institutions see their role in addressing their community’s health needs.

The second phase of MDC’s research included visits to each of the community colleges. MDC met with faculty, staff, and students to explore the colleges’ current programs and offerings intended to address health needs on campus and in the community at large. 

From those visits, MDC produced a paper outlining next steps for encouraging community colleges to increase the role they play in advancing health outcomes on campus, as well as in their service areas. Next steps for the effort include exploring specific projects colleges can undertake to better provide health-related programming to faculty, staff, students, and surrounding communities; learning how to more effectively communicate existing programs and opportunities with students and community residents; reimagining the campus as a community destination and resource; and continuing to support and increase opportunities for the colleges to partner with community-based institutions and local businesses. The colleges will also form a learning community to ensure that best practices are shared between institutions.

Read MDC’s analysis here.

*Nash Community College joined the effort after MDC’s analysis was complete, and, as a result, is not mentioned in the final paper.