The fact that Blue Ridge Community College saw a 10 percent boost in enrollment this semester over last year, despite low unemployment, is surprising ¬— but not all that much when you consider the reasons.
BRCC is one of Henderson County’s most valuable assets, offering core curriculum courses for younger students, training for industries and retraining for workers who lose jobs due to economic changes.
The college’s importance to our economy is highlighted by the fact that its Small Business Center was ranked second among 59 such centers statewide for the number of seminars, workshops and consultations it provides to entrepreneurs. Last year, the center offered 114 seminars with 2,200 attendees, while staff provided 400 hours of free small-business counseling to 128 clients.
Another key part of the college’s mission is holding specialized training programs for local industries. In 2017-18, BRCC offered customized training programs for 14 manufacturing companies and served 72 companies through corporate training offerings. It was part of the college’s mission to “make sure we are here for our regional employers when they need us,” BRCC President Laura Leatherwood said.
When a recession strikes or the economy is weak, community colleges typically see enrollment go up as laid off workers go back to school to get marketable skills. When the economy is growing and strong, enrollment usually decreases. BRCC saw enrollment decline or plateau since 2014 — until this semester.
As of Sept. 5, the college reported 2,191 students enrolled, a 10 percent increase from a year ago. The college attributes that to more current high school students and recent graduates taking advantage of free and reduced tuition.
Henderson County has the third-lowest unemployment rate in the state, according to July figures from the N.C. Department of Commerce. For a community college to see an enrollment increase during low unemployment is unusual, but it was the result of a deliberate effort, Leatherwood said.
When she was named college president last year, staff and faculty got together to find creative ways to reach out to high schools and the community. This included lengthening registration periods, improving communication with prospective students, a new student orientation focused on engaging students in campus life, and a targeted marketing and outreach campaign.
One of the most significant areas of increase was among high school students from Henderson and Transylvania counties taking college courses through BRCC’s Career and College Promise Program. It allows high school juniors and seniors to earn college credit toward a two- or four-year degree while in high school through free courses at BRCC. Students in the program can earn up to two years of college credits at no cost by the time they graduate high school.
With the growing costs of higher education, it’s no surprise that more local students and their families are taking advantage of this dual enrollment program — or that more local high school graduates are choosing to complete their first two years of college at BRCC before transferring to a four-year institution.
When you offer such opportunities and value, as BRCC does, everyone wins.