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Community Spotlight: Isothermal Community College improves lives in Rutherford and Polk counties

Four adult students in a culinary arts class watch the instructor at the head of the class.
A culinary arts class at Isothermal Community College.

Isothermal Community College (ICC) doesn’t stop at providing nearly free higher education for students in western North Carolina. Its mission is to improve lives through learning. Students can choose from more than 100 associate degrees, diplomas and certificates that will prepare them to transfer to a university or immediately find a job. ICC was recently chosen as one of the five participants in IEI’s educational attainment community cohort

ICC believes in making education accessible. One of the key ways it does this is by providing robust financial opportunities for the majority of its students. The Powers Promise scholarship contributes to tuition and fees for over 90% of ICC students from the service area of Rutherford and Polk counties.

But increasing educational attainment is more than getting people into college and making it affordable—students need supports to be able to stay in school even when they run into roadblocks. ICC has a number of institutional support services to increase retention and ensure student success, including mentoring, advising, tutoring, and developmental supports. Results of these efforts can be seen in its recent Quality Enhancement Plan, which found that retention rates improved in students who completed an orientation and first-year experience course.

But as Dr. Greg Thomas, ICC’s Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs, says, success is more about the human stories than it is about data. 

ICC graduate Tremaine Stewart shared his success story: “After high school, I wasn’t mentally or financially prepared to go to a university. The best option for me was to go to Isothermal where I earned my associate degree. My financial aid covered all of my tuition and materials, and I don’t owe any student loans. The people at Isothermal are there to help you and any questions I had were always answered. Currently I am a junior at UNC-Greensboro, majoring in Nutrition and I plan to pursue medical school after my undergraduate degree.”

Dr. Thomas says the most important lesson they have learned in doing this work is that supports have to be adaptive. 

“Every student or every potential student is an individual. So if we want to address and improve educational attainment, there are broader things we can do… but realistically, it’s about figuring out how best to support the student as an individual, and that level of support is hard,” said Dr. Thomas. “It’s hard because every student’s situation is unique, so the supports you need to put into place to help everyone be successful have to be unique.”

But ultimately, the results are going to be the improved lives of their students and by extension, the larger community. 

“The work we do is important because it so directly impacts our entire community,” said Dr. Thomas. “Each student represents not just an individual who’s trying to improve their own life, but that affects and improves the lives of all the people in their circle of influence.”

Isothermal Community College is one of five community-based organizations chosen by IEI as part of the 2022 Emerging Issues Forum on educational attainment in NC.