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Perspective | Celebrating Community College Month

As we celebrate Community College Month this April, our team at Blue Ridge Community College is reflecting on the milestones we’ve reached and our vision for the future. Our state’s 58 community colleges play a significant role in many communities and the region.

Every day, we work to help students to reach their unique goals and overcome challenges to academic and professional success. We also partner with area employers to assess and meet critical workforce needs.

Our college’s story is one snapshot of many in our state’s overall educational attainment goal of ensuring that two million North Carolinians have a postsecondary degree or credential by 2030. Today, I’d like to recognize and celebrate what our Blue Ridge faculty, staff, students, and industry partners have achieved over the past year.

A diverse, growing student body 

One of our greatest priorities is meeting students where they are, whether they’re recent high school graduates, obtaining continuing education in their field, or pursuing a new career later in life. In 2021, we served more than 10,000 students, including both curriculum and continuing education students. 

From the fall 2020 semester through the end of the fall 2021 semester, we awarded 430 degrees, 30 diplomas, and 94 certificates. Our students also earned 598 continuing education credentials. 

Area firefighters hone their hose handling skills in the college’s fire and rescue program.

We saw significant growth in the number of people pursuing their education. In fall 2021, we had a 9% increase in students compared to fall 2020. The spring 2022 semester saw a 13% increase in enrollment compared to spring 2021. 

While the average student age is 24, 31% of our student body is over the age of 25. Nearly 67% are part-time students, which allows them to maintain work, family, and financial responsibilities while furthering their education. More than half of our students work at least one job while attending college and most of them also have family responsibilities. 

Supporting the local workforce 

To help meet local employer demand, Blue Ridge’s nursing program expanded from 54 to 74 seats this year. We now serve 148 nursing students annually as part of our two-year degree program. 

To help local workers develop the skills they need to grow in their current roles, Blue Ridge experts provided customized training programs to more than 472 local workers at 92 companies in 2021. 

Additionally, our continuing education workforce training — ranging from notary public to EKG technician — served 4,340 students last year. 

Finally, our six apprenticeship programs have trained 103 students for apprenticeships since the program began in 2019. We plan to launch three more apprenticeship programs in fall 2022, and we are poised for our largest class of apprentices to date.  

Career and College Promise program

Blue Ridge also serves our local high school students through our Career and College Promise program. Through this initiative, high school students can choose from more than 40 certificates and diplomas in career and technical education areas. They can also earn half or more of the credits needed for an associate in arts, associate in engineering or associate in science degree. These classes give high school students a head start on their dream careers or college degrees — and they’re completely free. 

Brewing, distillation, and fermentation students prepare a fermentor to receive a batch of beer in the college’s brewing lab.

Transfer programs 

Blue Ridge has more than 60 articulation agreements for our programs, including 30 agreements for transfer programs. Articulation agreements guarantee that classes completed at Blue Ridge will count toward a specific degree at another college if the student transfers or continues their education after Blue Ridge. 

This means many local students can pursue affordable degrees close to home and then transfer to the school of their choice to continue advanced degrees if they wish. 

Looking to the future 

As we look ahead to the rest of 2022, our goal is to grow our community partnerships and outreach to broaden our impact on the communities we serve. We currently have 406 partnerships in 41 municipalities, including Hendersonville, Fletcher, Asheville, Flat Rock, Brevard, Mills River, and Arden. These partnerships serve a variety of industries, including education, business and information technology, public safety, automotive, healthcare, nonprofit and community organizations, and manufacturing.

Our vision is to meet community members where they are and provide educational opportunities to a diverse range of students, companies, and industries. It is our privilege to serve western North Carolina, and we look forward to a bright future ahead. 

Laura Leatherwood

Laura B. Leatherwood, Ed.D., is the president of Blue Ridge Community College. Leatherwood was selected as the 2022 President of the Year by the NC Community College System. Prior to Blue Ridge, she served for 17 years in various roles at Haywood Community College. Dr. Leatherwood holds a doctorate degree in university and community college leadership, a master’s degree in human resource development, and a bachelor’s degree in business law, all from Western Carolina University.