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Northeast State at Bristol: Collaboration is the future of higher education

November 19th, 2013 9:03 am by Debra McCown

Northeast State at Bristol: Collaboration is the future of higher education

Keith Young, dean of off-campus programs and services for Northeast State, shows off a classroom with colorful, movable desks on wheels. It is engineered for collaboration among students.

BRISTOL, Tenn. – At the top of a heavy wooden staircase lined by century-old brick, the Bristol campus of Northeast State Community College feels a little bit like a swanky downtown loft.

With 16,000 square feet on the third floor of the old H.P. King department store building, above an event venue, a museum and a fashionable State Street restaurant, the modern renovated space is a fresh piece of needed urban renewal.

As it contributes to the effort to breathe new life into Bristol’s historic downtown, the satellite campus is also representative of how higher education is changing to reach a new generation of students.

As the Blountville-based community college has expanded to sites in Kingsport, Elizabethton, Gray and Bristol, Northeast State has also forged ahead on a concept that, just 15 years ago ago, was unheard-of: collaborating with a four-year college.

“Together, ETSU [East Tennessee State University] and Northeast State have been pioneers of partnership,” said Keith Young, dean of off-campus programs and services for Northeast State, before showing off the high-tech urban facility that opened earlier this year.

Back at the turn of this century when the two tax-supported institutions started working together, he explained, “Universities had their world, community colleges had their world, and usually if a student went to a community college and wanted to transfer to a university, there was a lot of credit loss.”

With recognition that an easier transition would make higher education accessible to more students, ETSU and Northeast State decided to collaborate on course requirements so that students could go seamlessly from an associate’s degree on to pursue a bachelor’s.

In the years since, Young said, this collaboration has become a model for the rest of the state – and is changing how Tennessee delivers higher education.

It was in this tradition of partnership that the two institutions recently came together to meet another higher education need expressed by the community: a master’s program in social work.

In a classroom with colorful, movable desks on wheels – engineered for collaboration among students – the classes meet on Monday and Tuesday nights. More and more, tailor-made programs like this one are the norm.

“We’re not in a position where we can just throw programs and courses out there and see if anybody bites,” said Rick Osborn, dean of the school of continuing studies and academic outreach at ETSU. “We really have to look at the market and look at the potential and focus in on the right programs.”

Young recalls his own graduate school days, during which he also worked three part-time jobs in different cities to support his family. For a lot of students, he said, going back to school is a challenge.

“Many of our students are one flat tire away from being knocked out of school,” he said. “Everything we do to make college more affordable and accessible will help those people think and define in their mind, ‘Yes, I can go to college, and I can complete.’”

Literally looking across the street at Virginia, the Bristol satellite campus is within walking distance for both Virginia and Tennessee students; its central location is walkable from the whole downtown as well as surrounding neighborhoods on both sides of the state line.

For ETSU, which had to close its Bristol campus when the recession hit in 2009, the partnership with Northeast State in Bristol means the ability to offer classes here again.

“It’s perfect for us because we’re able to meet an educational need, we’re able to share an existing facility, and we’re able to use that to deliver the program,” Osborn said. “If there’s a need for this program to continue, we can continue it. If not, we can look and see if there’s another program, another niche for us to fill. So it allows us to be nimble and flexible.”

In a time of tight budgets and rising expectations, partnerships among institutions of higher education and training are a way to efficiently help the surrounding community.

Plans are already in the works to extend the partnership to Northeast State’s soon-to-be-open Johnson City site, Osborn said, with an experimental course structure – five weeks of intensive study – designed to reach more people.

“We’re looking to see if that’s an attractive option for adult students,” he said. “So our partnership is going to go beyond Bristol; it’s going to go into downtown Johnson City, too.”

For more information, visit their link on the main Northeast State Community College website at

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