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Isothermal, McDowell Tech, and Western Piedmont to Collaborate on Regional Effort to Boost Graduation Rates in High-Demand Careers 

By: Mike Gavin
Published: January 12, 2024

SPINDALE (Jan. 12, 2024) – Pathways to critical and rewarding careers in the western foothills just got easier, officials said this week.

The U.S. Department of Education has awarded Isothermal Community College, McDowell Technical Community College, and Western Piedmont Community College a grant in the amount of $2.3 million. The project, entitled Foothills FORWARD, aims to facilitate an occupation-ready workforce by addressing regional demands through efforts focused on increasing college retention, persistence and completion rates among students in areas served by the three colleges. McDowell Tech is the lead agency in the project. 

The grant will allow the colleges to build a strong network of data-informed regional success coaches for adult learners, along with support services that increase access to basic resources in housing, childcare, transportation and health and wellness—resources that are critical in allowing students to pursue higher education and workforce development training, particularly in rural communities. A portion of the grant will be used to create a shared regional decision support and predictive analytics position that utilizes data to inform coaches and college leaders’ use of dashboards to promote institutional agility and proactive outreach. Each college will utilize the grant to improve professional learning and development for career coaches and support staff at the colleges.  

In addition to the community college partners, six regional employers -- four in advanced manufacturing and two hospital systems -- will collaborate with McDowell Tech on this project. Additional assistance will be provided by Foothills Workforce Development Board (WDB); Western Piedmont WDB; Foothills Regional Commission; Single Stop; TimelyCare; InsideTrack; North Carolina Community College System; myFutureNC; Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research; and DVP-PRAXIS. 

Leaders say the regional approach makes sense. 

“This project helps us all leverage resources to better serve our communities,” said Dr. Margaret Annunziata, Isothermal’s president. “Our collective mission is to create value and opportunities for our students that allows them to better provide for their families. This, in turn, improves all of our communities. We appreciate the many partners who are coming together to make this happen.” 

Ryan Garrison, interim president at McDowell Tech, echoed Annunziata’s sentiment. 

 “It is part of our core mission to break down barriers that prevent students from accessing top-quality, affordable higher education and successfully completing their chosen programs,” said Garrison. “Funds from this grant will allow us to provide enhanced services and supports to break down those barriers, build a stronger workforce for our local economies, and help our graduates find new and better jobs with family-sustaining wages for themselves and their families.” 

Grant funding is provided through the Rural Postsecondary and Economic Development Program at the Department of Education, designed to promote “high-quality career pathways” in high-skill, high-wage and in-demand occupations and industries within the region where the colleges are located.  

“These grant awards will help rural institutions Raise the Bar for student success and the attainment of valuable degrees and credentials that lead to brighter futures and greater prosperity,” said Miguel Cardona, U.S. Secretary of Education.  According to statistics provided by the Department of Education, only 29 percent of individuals between the ages of 18 and 24 in rural communities are enrolled in some type of higher education, compared to 48 percent in urban areas and 42 percent in suburban areas.  

Nationwide, 22 institutions of higher education, including eight community colleges, will receive a total of $44.5 million in grant funding this year. Pitt Community College was the only other community college in North Carolina to be awarded a grant during this cycle. 

Amanda Buchanan, Director of Financial Aid at McDowell Tech, will lead collaborative efforts with Isothermal, Western Piedmont, regional employers and other cooperating agencies. 

“We look forward to working with our colleagues at Isothermal and Western Piedmont Community Colleges to build a strong network of quality success coaches who are trained on best practices in recruiting, advising, counseling and preparing students to be successful in college and in their future careers,” said Garrison. “Boosting enrollment and graduation rates in high-demand careers will ultimately benefit regional workforce development efforts and enhance our local economies.”