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“Did you know you could drive more than two hours west of Asheville and still be in North Carolina?” asked Bo Gray, vice president for college and community initiatives at Tri-County Community College.

My answer was no. I’d been to Asheville numerous times, driven on I-40 across the state border into Knoxville, and had a few friends from as far west as Haywood County — but on a hot day in late August, I found myself in an entirely new corner of North Carolina.

To get to Murphy from Asheville, you drive two hours southwest on Highway 74, half of which will be spent on a winding road through the Nantahala River Gorge alongside people rafting and kayaking down the waters. Soon after emerging from the gorge, you’ll find yourself in Murphy, a town of about 1,600 people that is closer to the state capitals of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Tennessee than it is to Raleigh.

This is all said to emphasize the regional identity of Tri-County Community College. Walking around Murphy, the people I spoke with often had strong ties to Tennessee and Georgia — they spoke of driving to Atlanta for shopping malls or the airport, and many worked or attended college in east Tennessee. Bright orange University of Tennessee stickers lined store windows and the back of pickup trucks. A quick scan of the FM radio dial gave me two channels with the Atlanta Braves syndication and one with Blue Ridge Public Radio.

Tri-County Community College serves the three western-most counties in North Carolina: Cherokee, Graham, and Clay. All three are considered Appalachian counties by the Appalachian Regional Commission, or ARC. Each year, ARC ranks every county in Appalachia by economic level. For fiscal year 2019, effective October 1, Cherokee and Clay are considered “at-risk,” while Graham is considered “distressed.” This index is developed by a comparison of each county’s three-year average unemployment rate, per capita market income, and poverty rate to national averages. For more data on the college and its service area, click on the flashcard below.

Tri-County Community College

Meeting regional needs

Dr. Tipton-Rogers, a native of Cherokee County, has served as president of Tri-County Community College since 2007.

“Our mission since 1964 has been to help students succeed, to enrich our communities, and to reach out and help meet those needs,” said Tipton-Rogers. “That is what we try to do each and every day.”

Tri-County Community College serves as the only institution of higher education for the roughly 46,000 people living in its service area. Gray said he gets stopped everywhere from the grocery store to high school sporting events because the community members truly know him. According to Gray, the college’s personal touch is what makes them unique, saying, “We know people. We recognize them.”

When asked what makes the college unique, Tipton-Rogers reflected on the college’s nimbleness in designing programs that meet the needs of students and local businesses.

“The way that we continue to do more with less, the way that we’re able to meet community needs, and the way we’re able to reach out to meet all the students’ needs — whether it’s through cosmetology, spa services, welding, nursing, truck driving. We offer those programs because students and businesses in our area have addressed needs,” said Tipton-Rogers. “We always try to reach those needs and provide students with ways to succeed.”

One example of meeting community needs is the college’s work to supply the local casino with a trained workforce. In 2015, Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino opened in Murphy and hired about 1,000 employees to run the operation. Suddenly, Gray recalled, “help wanted” signs appeared in the windows of fast food restaurants in town. It became easier to find a job, leading to the lowest student enrollment in the college’s history. Community colleges are funded per full time equivalency, or per full-time student they serve. Fewer students means less funding in the future.

Rather than turn away from the new industry, Tri-County Community College listened to its needs. One of the first things the casino needed to be successful was skilled chefs, so Tri-County started a new culinary program to train chefs.

The culinary arts program at Tri-County Community College is the direct result of working to meet a new industry’s needs.

“The community said this is what we need, and instead of resisting the casino coming in, we embraced that. We work with community and then move in that same direction,” said Tipton-Rogers.

Another example of meeting community needs can be found at the college’s Cherokee Center for Applied Technology, strategically located at the center of the three-county service area. Among other things, the Center houses the colleges small business center, the machinist training program, and provides facilities for workforce development to the community.

Paul Worley, director of the Center, discussed its ability to listen and quickly respond to needs.

“What we do is pretty unique: we listen. Ignorance is my best asset,” said Worley. “I don’t know what folks need, so that eliminates us from going in and offering solutions. They have to help us develop answers.”

Residency policy poses a challenge

The identity and economy of Tri-County Community College’s service area is inextricably tied to its neighboring counties in Georgia and Tennessee. As of September 2018, 25 percent of Clay County residents and 14 percent of Cherokee County residents worked outside of North Carolina.

With other states in such close proximity (the Georgia border is less than a 15 minute drive from campus, the Tennessee border less than 30 minutes), students considering postsecondary education look to options in neighboring states just as those who live close to the border in Georgia or Tennessee look to options in North Carolina.

The view from Highway 64 westbound near Tri-County Community College in Murphy, NC.

Yet state policy prevents students living in neighboring states from accessing in-state tuition at Tri-County Community College. Instead, they have to pay out-of-state tuition at $268 per credit hour, over 3.5 times the in-state tuition of $76 per credit hour. This makes Tri-County a much more expensive postsecondary option for students living in Georgia and Tennessee compared to remaining in-state.

“We don’t see boundaries,” said Tipton-Rogers. “But because they’re 100 yards on that side, they can’t go to school with the people they grew up with.”

However, the same is not true for students in North Carolina. Just across the border, North Georgia Technical College offers in-state tuition to North Carolina residents from Cherokee, Clay, and Macon counties, two of the three counties in Tri-County’s service area. North Carolina students are driving across the state border to attend community college, but not vice versa.

In June 2018, the North Carolina House of Representatives passed House Bill 519 that would allow residents of Georgia and Tennessee who live in counties contiguous with Cherokee, Clay, or Graham counties to receive in-state tuition at Tri-County Community College. The bill moved to the Senate, where it was referred to committee and remains today.

Analisa Sorrells

Analisa Sorrells is the chief of staff and associate director of policy for EducationNC.