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Q&A with Brian Merritt, former president of McDowell Technical Community College

Stories & Case Studies
September 27, 2023
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Dr. Brian S. Merritt is the former president of McDowell Technical Community College (MTCC), a rural institution in the North Carolina Community College System. MTCC joined the ATD Network in 2023, when Dr. Merritt and a team of leaders attended ATD’s Kickoff Institute in Milwaukee this June.

Recently, Dr. Merritt ended his tenure as president of MTCC when he was named senior vice-president & chief academic officer of the N.C. Community College System. Before beginning his new role, we had a chance to talk with Dr. Merritt about MTCC’s student success goals, the team’s experience at Kickoff, and the college’s new strategic vision centered on strengthening the institution and the community.

Brian Merritt



Q: Before joining the ATD Network in 2023, McDowell Tech was selected to be part of the Rural College Leaders Program in North Carolina. How has your leadership team’s involvement in a larger collective affected institutional culture, and what further changes do you hope will take place over the next three years of partnership with ATD?

A: McDowell Tech’s participation in the Rural College Leaders Program was our “warm-up” year for Achieving the Dream. And we were so grateful for that experience!

Shortly before we were selected for RCLP, we had just launched our Vision 2025 Strategic Plan with a new vision statement to “Learn & Grow,” focusing on individuals, our community, and our institution. We dug deep into our institutional and community-wide data and realized that MTCC needed to reimagine how we could better serve our students and our employees; find ways to strengthen our community; and after a decade of declining enrollments and retention, prioritize strengthening our institution.

As we joined the RCLP, we also had a few senior team members subsequently retire. The RCLP experience helped our new leadership team prioritize institutional achievement gaps in our strategic plan that we had not yet focused on. The two most important words in our mission statement are “workforce development.” We are laser-focused on finding new, innovative ways to partner locally and regionally to reach prospective students and to engage with employers who have been historically disengaged with McDowell Tech. Our involvement with ATD will keep our strong momentum going!

Q: In your view, what is the most significant challenge that rural colleges face today? How are you working to address this challenge at MTCC?

A: Rural colleges face unique challenges: We have smaller and fewer pools of prospective students from which we can recruit and we often face difficulties with qualified talent pools for employees, especially in regards to credentialed faculty. At MTCC, we are the only institution of higher education in our county. Students wishing to transfer travel at least 45 minutes from home, and the college-going culture in our county is much lower when compared to similar non-metro counties in North Carolina.

Over the past few years, we have become much more intentional about our marketing and recruiting efforts and community-wide messaging to students. We engaged with a local brand and PR firm to conduct market research about career pathways and focused on partnering with agencies to better serve those in our community who need us the most. In McDowell County, our Latinx residents are twice as likely to be unemployed and in poverty, Black residents are three times as likely, and those who identify as biracial are four times as likely.

As a result, we have:

  • Partnered with Centro Unido Latino American (CULA) to help students enroll in career pathways and then bridge into high-demand, high-wage careers
  • Run a new campaign titled “Beyond a Better Job,” sending a consistent message to prospective students that MTCC is a path to creating a better future for their families
  • Experienced significant enrollment growth for three consecutive fall semesters, with a  special emphasis on short-term workforce courses that engage our Latinx community

“We are laser-focused on finding new, innovative ways to partner locally and regionally to reach prospective students and to engage with employers.”

Q: You attended ATD’s Kickoff Institute this summer with a team from your institution. Based on the early momentum metrics the MTCC team examined at Kickoff, what were your most important findings and how are they affecting your team’s focus on student success?

A: We are eager to see results with our credit math and credit English metrics as the fall 2023 cohort progresses through the summer 2024 year. When we presented these data points to our faculty and staff, common responses were, “This can’t be right” or “I’ve always known it.” When you see single-digit completion numbers tied to English and math during the first year, the data can’t be ignored.

Thankfully, our secured Title III grant and Quality Enhancement Plan primarily focused on creating a stronger academic advising program and success coaching that spread a more personalized advising approach college-wide. We found that our primary issue was students avoiding math and English during their first year; therefore, we have doubled down on our first-year advising efforts to better emphasize the importance of these gateway courses during year one.

MTCC’s completion rate (per the NCCCS dashboards) is one of lowest in the North Carolina system. However, we expect that to change. We have leveraged the Finish First NC software provided through Wake Technical Community College in partnership with the NC Community College System, John M. Belk Endowment, and the Lumina Foundation. The software helps us identify students with unclaimed credentials and allows coaches to more proactively advise students on completion pathways and helps us identify former students who should re-enroll.  As a result, our last two graduation ceremonies have seen a record number of graduates, and we look forward to these trends continuing up!

Q: Were there any moments at the Kickoff Institute that will stick with the leadership team as MTCC engages in the Foundations of Transformation work with ATD?

A: Historically, MTCC has faced similar challenges to other rural institutions with its data capacity. However, after our “warm-up” year with the Rural College Leaders Program, our team was well prepared during Kickoff to discuss our achievement gaps and ways to continue strengthening our institutional momentum to find solutions. With most of our leadership team serving in newer roles, it was refreshing to hear team members discussing ideas that had emerged from their own departments based on data discussions and not resorting back to the way “we’ve always done it” — a common phrase we hear at many institutions.

One of the best parts about the Kickoff experience was the excitement and energy we brought back to campus to launch our work with ATD. We decided to launch it during the fall 2023 convocation and put a different spin on our institutional vision statement: We declared the 2023–24 year as our time to “Learn. Grow. Dream.” Students and employees shared their reflections about how they help MTCC learn and grow, as well as their dreams for our future. Our ATD coaches joined us and explained expectations for the three-year commitment to the ATD process.

You can read more in our August 2023 Employee Newsletter that provided a recap of the ATD launch and our commitment to Learn, Grow, and Dream over the next three years.

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