Blue Ridge students experience hands on learning.

Community Colleges: The Heart of Our Local Economy

Featured photos: Students at Blue Ridge Community College experience hands on learning. (Photos by Rich Keen, Marketing and Communications Dept.).

By Dr. Laura B. Leatherwood, President
Blue Ridge Community College

Dr. Laura LeatherwoodAs Blue Ridge Community College joins two-year colleges nationwide in commemorating Community College Month, it’s a perfect time to reinforce our workforce development focus and the benefits we provide to Henderson and Transylvania Counties.

We firmly believe that education transforms lives and communities for the better. What experts in higher education have long acknowledged – that community colleges are essential for strong local economies – is now accepted and understood by a wider audience. And the return on investment is tangible: Blue Ridge Community College added $128.1 million to our local economy in 2019-20 alone.

Our community and business leaders view Blue Ridge as a key partner in solving a myriad of economic development challenges, most importantly producing trained workers for the growing number of employers who need them.

Filling the gaps through work-based learning

Blue Ridge Community College is well-equipped for – and we are in an excellent position to – help fill the employment gaps that exist locally. During the past few years, we have leveraged several initiatives to address these gaps. One that stands out is the expansion of apprenticeship pathways for those who want to earn while they learn. Apprenticeship Blue Ridge offers numerous paths to employment in essential fields like construction, electrical, plumbing, heating and cooling (HVAC) and much more. These work-based programs continue to grow exponentially and are critical to filling the workforce pipeline, and attracting workers who might otherwise not choose to train for our most high-demand jobs.

Responsiveness to industry needs

Our ongoing collaborations with industry partners have resulted in cutting-edge programs that respond to workforce demands, and quickly. Because of these intentional partnerships, we are able to develop and launch programs with agility while meeting the needs at hand. The result is innovative programs that will impact our region for many years to come.

Guided by our industry advisory committees, we continue to add programs and courses that prepare students for the influx of available jobs. Blue Ridge is launching eight new programs this fall in the areas of engineering, information technology, business, healthcare and education. Many of our programs offer students “stackable” credentials where they can earn short-term certificates and employable job skills while working on long-term goals, such as earning an associate degree in a field like civil or environmental engineering.

Open door for all

Like community colleges across the nation, we strongly believe in accessible education. Making sure all people in our community can access educational opportunities is a vital role for Blue Ridge Community College. At Blue Ridge, this is accomplished by offering “open door” admissions that allow anyone to enroll – a core concept of the North Carolina Community College System since its inception in the early 1960s.

Using this open door philosophy, Blue Ridge is working alongside community colleges across North Carolina to meet the state’s educational attainment goal – two million North Carolinians ages 25 to 44 will have a meaningful, high-quality credential or postsecondary degree by 2030. Although ambitious, this goal is attainable and will continue to position North Carolina as the best place in the U.S. to do business.

Making higher education possible for adult students

Attending school for community college students, especially adult learners, presents challenges. Our students must balance the obligations of work, family, transportation, childcare and much more.

At Blue Ridge, students can allocate the necessary time to working, studying and maintaining a personal life thanks to the availability of flexible course schedules. This flexibility allows them to manage being a student more easily than they might have expected.

A wise investment

Did you know our students receive a return of $4.90 in higher future earnings for every dollar they invest in their Blue Ridge Community College education? That’s an average annual rate of return of 28.0% – an impressive stat, especially when compared to other investments.

It’s no secret that attending Blue Ridge Community College costs thousands less than four-year schools. This means our students can avoid student loans to achieve their educational goals. Blue Ridge has a long history of providing scholarships and removing barriers. Especially as the burden of student debt is soaring across the nation, we feel privileged to extend the Free College scholarship through the end of 2023, offering college-eligible students an opportunity to attend Blue Ridge tuition free.

As we close Community College Month, we celebrate the hard-working students, staff, industry partners and local leaders who make this critical work possible, fueling our economy and enriching our community, each and every day.