Blue Ridge CC Strategies for Reaching Adult Learners


In North Carolina’s strong but rapidly changing economy, making higher education accessible to adult learners is a win for everyone. Whether these students aged 25 or older are looking to increase their skills or pursue a new career, earning new degrees creates opportunities. Similarly, employers benefit from workers with up-to-date knowledge and skills, as well as experience acquired with age.

Educating adult learners is also a win for our state’s workforce. As the workforce shifts to more mature demographics, this strategy prepares workers to fill critical roles in our communities. We know from recent studies such as “North Carolina’s Leaky Education Pipeline,” published by Carolina Demography in 2019, that the pipeline for 18-24 year olds is shrinking. If North Carolina community colleges are going to increase enrollment and if the state is going to meet its goal of graduating 2 million North Carolinas by 2030, adult learners must be part of the equation.

Flexibility to succeed

Educating adult learners presents unique challenges. These students must balance the obligations of work, finances, family, home, transportation, childcare, and more. Flexibility is therefore imperative to allow this population to finish strong with a diploma to show.

A great place to start is to provide students with flexible class schedules with classes offered during the day, evening, online, and at an accelerated pace. In fact, many adult learners may not enroll at all without these options. We must also ensure the effectiveness of their educational experiences; a myriad of short-term training and certificate programs provide excellent starting points for many to achieve their goals. When they see the value that higher education brings to their careers and their employers, they often seek additional degrees.

We have also learned that adult learners need support throughout their educational journey. Through a grant from Dogwood Health Trust, we recently deployed two full-time success coaches to support adult learners, guiding them through the onboarding process and ensuring a successful first semester through to completion. Students know their coaches are ready to listen, answer questions, solve problems, help them overcome obstacles, and help them with study strategies, time management, and self-awareness. With the right flexibility and support, these students can thrive.

Reaching adult learners

Due to their many roles and high pace of life, adult learners face barriers in accessing information about educational opportunities. Therefore, outreach and marketing strategies need to be carefully targeted and convey strong messages that resonate. At Blue Ridge, three cross-strategies have generated recent results.

In early 2021, Blue Ridge Community College was one of five colleges selected for a pilot program called the Engaging Adults Initiative—now called NC Reconnect—sponsored by the John M. Belk Endowment. As part of this initiative, Blue Ridge rolled out the message of the “Better Skills. Better jobs. We delivered this message in paid advertisements, as well as conducted outreach at the local level through employer visits, information disseminated to faith communities, communities of color and increased attendance at events. of the region.

Our second strategy also stemmed from this initiative. In conjunction with InsideTrack, a national nonprofit organization, we have identified and directly contacted more than 2,500 Blue Ridge Community College students over the past five years who had completed more than half of a degree program, then abandoned.

Finally, Blue Ridge has creatively reworked its budget and scholarship programs to provide free Brighter Future college scholarships to all eligible students. These combined efforts resulted in a 41% increase in the number of adult learners compared to fall 2020 and an overall increase in enrollment of 9%.

Think like an adult learner

As we have learned alongside our sister colleges during the Engaging Adults initiative, there are certain services, processes and requirements that we need to step back and reconsider through the lens of the adult learner. We need to ask the tough questions of our staff and faculty to ensure that we are eliminating or rethinking what makes it difficult for adult learners to enroll in our colleges. Investing the extra time to learn more about their potential obstacles will pay off time and time again.

As Dan Barkin mentioned in a recent Business North Carolina article, some think students should fend for themselves. But when colleges across the country struggle to retain students and our employers struggle to find skilled workers, why wouldn’t we create support systems that help students achieve their academic goals?

After all, it’s not just credentials that are at stake; it is the very health of our economy and our workforce. And these are the building blocks that create the safe and enjoyable communities we all love in North Carolina.

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 spent 17 years in various roles at Haywood Community College. Dr. Leatherwood holds a doctorate in university and college leadership, a master’s degree in human resource development, and a bachelor’s degree in business law, all from Western Carolina University.


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