Machining students looking at a machine component

The Value of Free College

Machining students inspect a component with their instructor at Blue Ridge Community College. (Photo courtesy of Rich Keen, Blue Ridge Community College Marketing and Communications Dept.)

By: Dr. Laura B. Leatherwood, President

Paying for college should not be an obstacle for anyone looking to further their education.

As a member of the North Carolina Community College System, Blue Ridge Community College shares in the statewide mission to open doors to high-quality, accessible educational opportunities. Realizing this mission includes minimizing financial barriers. At Blue Ridge, we are fortunate to be able to offer students access to more financial aid opportunities than ever before — including free college for the 2022-23 school year.

Education translates into opportunity. For some, opportunity can be the difference between a temporary and a generational change. By offering tuition-free college and career training, we can provide new and previously unattainable opportunities to diverse student populations who may otherwise not have considered higher education.

Brighter Future scholarships
In 2021, Blue Ridge established the Brighter Future scholarship, enabling students to take advantage of the many avenues available to pay for their education. Our team leveraged the Longleaf Commitment, Federal Pell Grants, state grants, and Blue Ridge Community College Educational Foundation scholarships, enabling students interested in pursuing an education — and a brighter future — to do so free of charge.

During the 2021-2022 academic year, about 1,000 students pursuing more than 40 areas of study attended Blue Ridge tuition-free through Brighter Future scholarships.

In 2022, we were fortunate to receive an anonymous $2 million donation for student financial needs. This allowed us to extend this free college scholarship for three additional semesters through the spring of 2023.

The benefits of free college
Some students have had to make difficult decisions in the past, trying to decide what resources their family could do without in order to make the financial sacrifice to attend college. Or, they delayed college attendance until their finances improved. Now students don’t have to make those decisions. Free college helps us remove the financial barrier students have historically faced and, as an added bonus, get more North Carolina residents gainfully employed.

Offering these scholarships helps students turn their dream of furthering their education or improving their career into a reality. Increasing the number of students who are able to attend college and complete a credential or degree grows the workforce and increases earning wages for our students.

Free college also helps ensure that a high quality education is accessible to all, regardless of income or background. It is part of closing the educational attainment gap in North Carolina, which is an important myFutureNC goal.

Our time is now
Community colleges are well-positioned to meet the needs that currently surround us. What we in the field of higher education have long recognized is becoming more mainstream and widely understood. Community colleges play a vital role in workforce training, recruitment for business and industry, and educational attainment. We are partnering with many in our communities to not only fill the pipeline, but help build it.

When we are able to remove the obstacle of paying for college, we’re empowering students — members of our communities — to take bold steps for their future, which ultimately results in even bolder results for our state’s economic future.