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Perspective | Think global, teach local: How North Carolina’s community colleges promote greater access to care

College enrollment in the United States has been slipping steadily since 2010. That doesn’t just represent lost opportunity for all those who would benefit from the career opportunities and enriching experiences a postsecondary degree can bring. The trend is also a significant health issue that can impact virtually everyone.

Access to quality health care is important for good health, and it’s no secret that shortages in the health care workforce make it more and more difficult for people to receive the care they need. In North Carolina alone, the Department of Health and Human Services identified 90 of our state’s 100 counties as Health Professional Shortage Areas for primary care. This isn’t just a local problem — it’s a national one, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only made things worse. To state the obvious, education is the vital pipeline that feeds talent into the health care system. Continuing college enrollment decline threatens the health care system’s capacity to serve everyone.

On the bright side, our state’s community colleges are nimbly responding to the call. This year and into 2022, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC) leadership has embarked on what we call our “Extra Miles Tour.” We are meeting leaders and innovators from every county who are going the extra mile to make North Carolina’s communities healthier and prosperous. Through these conversations, it’s become clear how community colleges are fostering productive collaborations between educators, health care providers, and community organizations.

These homegrown partnerships are helping communities in different regions, each facing unique issues, bring aspiring students into the classroom and preparing them to tackle pressing health care needs.

Making higher education more accessible

North Carolina has long understood the value of public higher education as a gateway to individual prosperity, innovation, and economic growth. Our public universities are world renowned, with good reason.

Our vast network of community colleges is just as critical to North Carolina’s economic and community health. In the wake of a global pandemic that has disproportionately affected lives and livelihoods in communities of color and rural communities, the Urban institute and others have focused on community colleges as drivers of economic equity: “Community colleges are integral to local economies because they sit at the intersection of workforce development and higher education. And recent evidence shows them emerging as engines for workforce growth.”

In North Carolina, they are the backbone of our communities. The advanced manufacturing training programs at Robeson Community College and Lenoir Community College exemplify how these institutions are preparing students for the jobs of 2030s instead of the 2010s.

Leaders in the health care industry should explore the value of the community college in slightly different terms. These institutions aren’t just priming local economies — as engines for the health care workforce growth, they’re enhancing access to care. Community colleges bring education close to home and offer coursework that is considerably more affordable than most four-year universities. By making educational opportunities more attainable to all aspiring students, community colleges are vital to any effort to strengthen provider capacity.

Just as importantly, the innovations unfolding at North Carolina’s community colleges demonstrate how institutions can innovate and adapt to serve students who might otherwise face significant barriers to higher education.

Blue Ridge Community College in Henderson County sits in the western part of the state. There, a unique partnership brings together three entities that operate out of one building. Standing three stories high, the Health Sciences Center provides both services and training to meet the region’s health care demands. The third floor is the physical site for Blue Ridge Community College’s Allied Health programs. While students attend classes in cutting edge learning facilities, patients receive treatment at the Pardee UNC Health Cancer and Surgery Center on the floor below. The same building also houses two Wingate University graduate programs: physician assistant studies and pharmacy. By bringing various entities together, the center makes it possible for students to take classes, observe medical practice, and get hands-on experience, all in one space. 

More than that, arrangements with the local school district funnel promising students into this vital workforce pipeline. Starting in high school, students can begin taking health professions classes through the college, making it easy to formally transition into one of the 15 programs offered by Blue Ridge Community College following high school graduation. After completing a two-year program, students can continue their studies through one of Wingate’s graduate programs.  

The result is an entire educational journey that doesn’t require students to leave their community. The simplicity of this experience is critical to attracting and retaining aspiring students, especially those who juggle family, work and class responsibilities, or who might not have access to reliable transportation.

Keeping talent close to home

The innovative approach to teaching and community partnerships unfolding at Blue Ridge Community College isn’t an isolated instance. It’s happening in College of the Albemarle’s state of the art simulation lab, housed in a repurposed building where the college dean once lived but where nursing, allied health, and first responder students now hone their skills on high tech mannequins.

Equally exciting work is taking place at colleges and universities across the state.

For North Carolinians in rural areas where the health care workforce is stretched thin, this localized approach to higher education is important: a recent study found that most students who attend community college remain within 300 miles of the town where they studied. More than 60% will live and work within 50 miles of their alma mater. Community colleges help ensure that the talent that’s grown in North Carolina stays in North Carolina.

This is why Blue Cross NC has invested $1 million in the North Carolina Community College System to help fund associate degree programs in emergency medical science at five community colleges, and why we’re investing in and funding scholarships for insurance licensing programs at community colleges to help create an insurance salesforce that’s as diverse as our state.

Addressing the nation’s health care needs requires creative solutions at every level and in every community. In North Carolina, community colleges play an indispensable role driving local innovation across the state. In the long run, this work will make our health care system more accessible and more equitable for all.

John Lumpkin

John Lumpkin is the president of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation.