Westover: MECC thrives on cooperation in region

Mike Still • Mar 17, 2019 at 12:00 PM

BIG STONE GAP — After almost two years as Mountain Empire Community College’s president, Kristin Westover sees a big bright side to a region dealing with the loss of coal industry jobs.

“I’ve never been in a region so willing to cooperate, so willing to work together, with so many different entities that are not even in the same sector in terms of service — health care, education, banking,” said Westover. “I’ve never been anywhere where they’ve all been so ready and excited to come together and collaborate in order to lift the region up.”

MECC in its 50 years has traditionally combined academic and career training programs in its mission to serve Wise, Lee and Scott counties and Norton, and Westover said that combined mission has had its challenges.

Westover credits a strong institutional history for the college’s success in facing those challenges, from its presidents and board to the MECC Foundation.

“As a small college, it’s sometimes a challenge to try and leverage your resources to the extent that you can provide as much possible for the community as you can, as high quality as you can, with as few resources as you can,” Westover said. “Without our foundation, honestly, that would be difficult for us to do. Our foundation supports a lot of our new initiatives through the grant writer that they fund, of course through their giving and the philanthropy of our region.”

Even with that foundation support, Westover said, MECC and other Virginia community colleges have faced long-term challenges in getting the funding to handle growing demand for career training programs that give students industry and professional certification but not traditional academic credit.

“The challenge with that right now is that we offer a lot of programs that are non-credit, yet our funding model is completely, pretty much derived from credit instruction,” Westover said. “For the first time in Mountain Empire’s history, this past spring our non-credit headcount surpassed our ... headcount for credit students.”

The traditional Virginia funding model for community colleges is based on full-time-equivalent enrollment, or the actual number of students divided by what is considered the number of academic hours carried by a full-time student. That number is lower than the actual headcount.

“There’s so much more that goes into funding a community college than just full-time enrollment,” Westover said. “A nursing program is five times the expense of a history course, yet we’re funded the same for both. All instruction is not the same cost to deliver.”

Westover said that the state’s new G3 Initiative — Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back — could help address some state funding issues, but she said community colleges in Southwest Virginia are tucked between Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia, where community college tuition rates are lower than in Virginia.

“We face the same challenges that most higher ed institutions in Virginia face right now, and that is just funding, the lack of funding from the state that sometimes forces us to increase tuition just in order to keep things in operation,” Westover said. “Next fiscal year is actually the first year in the legislature that they have offered us enough money to hold us harmless with all the unfunded mandates they’ve come up with.”

MECC is still providing career-track programs to help the region. Having set up the Center for Workforce and Innovation in the old Appalachia Elementary School in Wise County, the college offers two training programs for utility linemen and for earning a commercial driver’s license. Westover said the center also will house a Smart Farming program, working with GO Virginia and Appalachian Sustainable Development to help farmers look at new techniques and various crops.

The college has supported the Appalachian Intermountain Scholars program for several years, Westover said, in cooperation with the MECC Foundation and UVa-Wise. That program gives high school graduates scholarships and support to enter college and progress to a bachelor’s degree, and Westover said the program’s number of successful degree earners has grown from 10 students a year to 65 last year.

“That’s a testament to UVa-Wise,” Westover said. “They’re supporting that through their scholarships and we’re supporting that through our foundation. The UVa-Wise Foundation and the Mountain Empire Community College Foundation have really worked in tandem to ensure that that’s a viable path for students.

“I appreciate that we have UVa-Wise right up the road,” Westover said. “We both serve complementary but different missions. Throughout history we’ve done that extremely well and we’ll continue to do that. What a gem to have both located within the county of Wise. I’m glad that we have such a strong working relationship.”

MECC’s Small Business Development Center has provided help to entrepreneurs for more than a decade, and Westover said supporting entrepreneurial efforts is important now.

“If we just sit back and wait for the 500-job employers to land in Wise and Lee and Scott, we’re going to be waiting,” said Westover. “We have the talent and we have the resources, and we have the drive and the work ethic to really create some strong entrepreneurial businesses out of our own region.”

While Southwest Virginia has suffered from the coal industry’s decline, Westover said there are jobs in the region which people can prepare for at community colleges. About 20 percent of the population in MECC’s service area is not working but could be, she said, and they are not disabled.

“It’s probably a lack of alignment between training and the jobs that are out there,” Westover said. “I think we could help with that. I wish that those folks that are looking for that good job or that career, I wish they would come talk to us. I don’t know that they know all of the opportunities, and that probably breaks my heart more than anything for people not to avail themselves of our institution and not find out what opportunities are available for them that could help them have a better life.”

Westover said she wants to see more students realize that MECC’s career and academic courses are not exclusive of each other. Earning a career certificate helps boost wages, she said, but combining that with college courses and a degree can add even more to a person’s earning potential.

“We’re focusing as much on our transfer education, but we’re looking at how many on-ramps there are to that transfer education,” Westover said. “We’re really trying to help folks recognize that there’s not one start and one stop point in education, that there are multiple entry points and multiple exits. You just kind of have to be thoughtful about which ones you choose to leverage the best career options possible.”

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