Distance Learning Program
Bladen Community College (BCC), located in rural southeastern North Carolina, has one of the most effective distance learning programs in the state. It is one of five institutions of higher learning (along with Duke University and UNC-Charlotte, for example) and the only community college in North Carolina to have received certification from the U.S. Distance Learning Association. It has recently ranked in the top 4 of the 58 community colleges for the percentage of students completing coursework online. BCC has been offering online courses since 2002 and boasts online enrollment at over 12 percent of total enrollment. The majority of these students choose to combine distance and traditional courses to meet requirements of full-time enrollment.
It is important to note that Bladen County is in the heart of rural North Carolina and has had a population hovering around 30,000 for the last 100 years. With a robust distance learning program in place, the school is particularly well-positioned to serve rural residents in this corner of the state. In fact, BCC enrolls students from neighboring counties, even those with their own community colleges, simply because of the access and flexibility provided by the distance learning program. Many students opt for a hybrid education consisting of mostly online courses and one to two traditional courses. Some of these students live in nearby Robeson County and drive by Robeson County Community College to reach BCC for their traditional coursework because the distance learning complement is unmatched in that part of the state.
This anecdote is reflected in the data, which show that only 50 percent of enrollment comes from inside the county, a number that is surprisingly low for a rural community college. This number typically tends to be closer to 90 percent. The key to BCC’s distance learning success is focusing on increasing access and providing flexibility for students. By meeting students where they are and making the education process more accessible, attainment levels rise and employment levels rise.
BCC has nearly tripled in size over the last 13 years but the school has managed to keep a small town feel where students can walk in without an appointment and receive tailored support and advice when needed. The majority of enrolled students are first-generation college students so providing unlimited access to in-person support to guide them through the process is often the most critical asset in ensuring educational success.
As is the case for many community colleges, educational success is not based only on degree completion. In fact, limiting success metrics to number of degrees awarded can misrepresent the accomplishments of community college students and undermines the role the community colleges play in preparing a skilled workforce. Not all students come to BCC for the sole purpose of earning a degree and many of them, in fact, do not leave with a credential. Statistically, this would reflect low educational attainment rates; however, the reality can often be very different.
If students enroll to learn a particular skill but do not earn a degree, they may still achieve high academic standing and find gainful employment. Anecdotally, this type of story is, for all intents and purposes, a success story for which community colleges can claim responsibility. However, state and federal statistics do not account for that measure of success. Because of this distinction, BCC is often not eligible for performance funding when only more traditional success measures are considered.
This illustrates a misrepresentation in the role community colleges play in preparing students for successful transfers to four-year universities or into the workforce. Furthermore, while the Comprehensive Articulation Agreement between the UNC System and NC Community College System is designed to move students through school and to completion faster and more smoothly, it could have some unintended consequences. For example, mastering many crucial skills that make students more marketable (such as written and oral communication) is often limited because the degree track was expedited to improve metrics.
As with any educational program, there are multiple barriers to the success of distance learning. In theory, distance learning can be an efficient and effective way to increase educational attainment in the more isolated areas of the state, helping to level the educational playing field and removing geography from the list of barriers to receiving a quality education. However, this is a doubled-edged sword. In rural counties in particular, like Bladen, the lack of sufficient bandwidth and internet access generally are pervasive and significant impediments. Many rural residents still have dial-up internet access in their homes, if any at all. Some students resort to taking their online classes on their smart phones, which is incredibly resourceful but challenging at the same time.
More should be done to provide students with access to fast, reliable internet access. In addition, while public schools are supposed to prepare students in the area of technology, many arrive at BCC with little computer literacy. Another ongoing challenge is ensuring quality instruction for online courses. BCC does this by requiring that online courses are taught by the same instructors that teach traditional courses and by establishing a mechanism by which students can access their instructors and receive feedback with the same reliability as traditional students. Also challenging is marketing BCC’s distance learning program.
At present, the best tool for enrollment is word of mouth. However, as the program expands and can sustain greater enrollment from all corners of the state and beyond, there must be a stronger and more embedded strategy for marketing the opportunity, particularly through online channels. The key to an effective distance learning program is rooted firmly at the intersection of access, reliability, quality and a quick response to changing circumstances and workforce demands.
As was mentioned in earlier posts, many community colleges, including BCC, offer their own version of the centralized Minority Male Mentoring program. At BCC the program has been in place for six years. However, unlike many of its counterparts on other campuses, BCC’s version of the program targets first-generation minority males and students who have a GPA of 2.0 or lower, both of whom are considered to be at-risk. In rural counties, first-generation college students tend to be more common and, therefore, a more tailored approach to their success is required. Similar to other efforts statewide, BCC’s program provides mentoring sessions, tours of four-year colleges, and workshops on critical skills to support growth.
Michelle Goryn is a writer and public policy consultant in Raleigh, NC.
Paige C. Worsham is Senior Policy Counsel with the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research and conducted the interviews and convenings for this project.
The N.C. Center for Public Policy Research is grateful to numerous, generous supporters. Major funding for this project is provided by the Lumina Foundation for Education, with additional funding from the James G. Hanes Memorial Fund, and the Hillsdale Fund.
 Interview with Bladen Community College administrators and faculty: Barry Priest, Associate Vice President for Student Services; Jeff Kornegay, Executive Vice President; Thomas Rains, Disabilities Coordinator; Julien Duncan, director of Minority Male Mentoring program; Ann Russell, Dean of Distance Education; Cynthia McKoy, Associate Vice President for Academic Services; Anthony Thomas, Director of Career College Promise; Joyce Bahhouth, Dean of Arts and Sciences; Ray Shepard, Department Chair.