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‘At a crossroads’: Reflections on engaging adult learners

When Blue Ridge Community College decided to go all in on adult learners, its leaders didn’t know if it would work. But they had nothing to lose, writes president Laura Leatherwood. She offers insight for other colleges considering a similar move.

This perspective piece originally ran in as part of a series on adult learners in North Carolina.

When I reflect back on any initiative, the picture usually becomes much clearer. That’s the case with the Engaging Adults Initiative that Blue Ridge Community College embarked upon with the help of the John M Belk Endowment this fall. 

Like many other community colleges, we were at a crossroads prior to the pandemic, and we knew we needed to figure out how to do things differently. We thought we had more time to figure it out, but the pandemic was an accelerator to this work.

Given the fact we had spent the last 14 months pivoting and changing, and at some points in time just hanging on, we really didn’t know anything different than being flexible at that point. So, we seized the opportunity to try something new and innovative, and, frankly, we really had nothing to lose. MC Belk Pilon and the John M Belk Endowment took a chance on Blue Ridge Community College and supported us through this process.   

One thing I learned about my own college throughout this work is simply that we are building on the work we have been doing for years. We asked ourselves four questions:

  1. Institutional readiness — Did we have the capacity and talent?
  2. Community readiness — Did we have partnerships within the community that would support this work?
  3. Leadership readiness — Did I, as president, have the support of my leadership team? Were they all in?
  4. Strategic readiness — Did this work align with our strategic goals?

Looking back, we were able to answer yes to all of these questions.

Specifically, the four strategies we chose to deploy were as follows:

  1. InsideTrack helped us identify and provide outreach to students who had been out 5 years and were 50% toward completion of a degree, diploma or certificate.
  2. We ran parallel marketing campaigns of “Better Skills, Better Jobs” and “Free College.”
  3. We deployed all of our nonprofits as extended recruiters for the college.
  4. We hired success coaches for our adult students.

We really had no idea if this was going to work. We began watching the data weekly once we launched. Some weeks it was stagnant, and some weeks we saw significant progress.  Then we started to see significant increases in our enrollment as we got closer to the start of the semester. 

As result of this work, we saw an increase of 9.17 percent in enrollment, and 16.5 percent in full-time equivalent enrollment. We saw our adult student enrollment increase from the previous year by 41.42 percent. And our minority population enrollment increased as well. Historically, community colleges experience quick, high enrollment such as this during a recession.

What we learned was that no single strategy alone will work. The combination of these strategies in addition to a mindset at our college that we needed to be innovative in the future helped us be successful. 

This work also helped our college recognize how valuable data can be in helping us understand what works and what doesn’t. We will continue with our Monday data share and quickly make adjustments to our processes in real time. This is something that is very special about our community colleges, and that is the ability to quickly shift to improve the experience for our students and community.

Throughout the spring semester and into summer of 2022, we will continue this work and make some minor modifications. We hope to learn that this is not just an isolated success and that we can operationalize these strategies. If we are able to prove that this is the case, other community colleges in our state will be able to learn from our mistakes and/or successes.

Our North Carolina community colleges will be essential to the state reaching the myFutureNC educational attainment goal. We think moving forward that this could be replicated across the state and could accelerate filling high skilled jobs, helping close the skills gap and lead to business retention and recruitment. And anything that Blue Ridge Community College can do to pave the way and help us get there, we are happy to do.

Laura Leatherwood is president of Blue Ridge Community College in North Carolina.

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