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The N.C. Community College System elected Thomas Stith III to lead it through the coronavirus pandemic and steep enrollment losses.

Stith will become president of a system of 58 community colleges that enroll about 700,000 students a year. He now serves as district director of the U.S. Small Business Administration, a federal agency that secured more than $16 billion in coronavirus relief for N.C. small businesses. Stith also was chief of staff to former Gov. Pat McCrory from 2013 to 2017.

He succeeds interim president William Carver and former President Peter Hans, who left in August to become president of the University of North Carolina System.

As president of the community college system, Stith will help determine North Carolina’s comeback from the coronavirus shutdowns. But he faces a stark challenge. 

Stith will have to define his presidency against the pandemic and expected funding shortfalls from the economic downturn. He begins Jan. 11, three days after Gov. Roy Cooper’s coronavirus curfew is set to expire and months before vaccines can achieve herd immunity. 

“My vision for the North Carolina Community College System is guided by the principle that education translates into opportunity,” Stith said in a news release. “The North Carolina Community College System will lead our state’s economic recovery by providing education and training for our diverse population. The system will become a national model for educational excellence.”

Stith will have to grapple with the dramatic drop in enrollment that community colleges face across the country. The pandemic upended hands-on learning, restricted colleges’ ability to offer classes, and slashed the budgets of low-income students and adult learners.

“Working adults are struggling right now, and lower income students are struggling in their ability to go to college this year,” Scott Ralls, Wake Technical Community College president, told Carolina Journal. “His challenge is to help us make sure we have some level of budget enrollment stability, so we’re able to deal with the economic recovery issues once the pandemic moves out of the forefront.”

But to do that, Stith must also take on long-standing problems that stand in the way of recovering the enrollment growth of the past year.

Community colleges have long struggled to recruit teachers from industries that offer higher wages. Lower teacher pay has left community colleges hard-pressed to offer students a way into growing industries. 

“Stith takes the reins at a critical time for the N.C. Community College System,” said Terry Stoops, John Locke Foundation director of education studies. “Stith’s most formidable task will be to find a way to boost investments in high-demand programs without sacrificing affordability. North Carolina’s community colleges are having a difficult time competing with the private sector for talent.”

Stith doesn’t have a strong background in higher education, but that’s relatively common within the system. Past presidents often had political backgrounds that bolstered the community colleges’ relationship with the legislature. 

Stith spent five years as economic development program director at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the Kenan-Flagler Business School. He focused on economic improvement in Eastern North Carolina, grant money, and renewable energy projects.

Stith holds a bachelor’s degree in management and a Master of Business Administration in marketing from N.C. Central University. He has a certificate in nonprofit management from Duke University.

“The pandemic has shone a bright light on the need for educational opportunities and workforce development — two things our community colleges excel at,” Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said in a news release. “I believe Thomas is the right leader to build upon those fundamentals and help mold the next generation of North Carolina’s workforce.”