UVA Wise and MECC Partner to Expand College Access

The University of Virginia’s College at Wise and Mountain Empire Community College) have partnered to help students bridge the gap from high school diplomas to college degrees in an effort to raise the educational attainment rate in Southwest Virginia.

A $75,000, two-year grant will fund research needed to launch new pilot programs geared for improving access for rural students to attain higher education success. This summer begins the year-long data analysis and pilot development phase. In fall 2023, the colleges will implement pilot programs.

“Our goal is to strengthen the pathways from MECC to UVA Wise and increase equity in education. The ultimate goal is to have more people in this region with degrees. We believe there are several different paths for success,” UVA Wise Provost Trisha Folds-Bennett said.

“A significant number of students from our region come to MECC as their first step toward attainment of a bachelor’s degree,” Mountain Empire Community College President Kristen Westover said. “Building on the strong foundation that the AIMS program provides, the data captured from this research will assist MECC and UVA Wise in identifying and removing barriers to success, empowering us to enhance the student experience, and ultimately increasing the success of those students in our region who desire to graduate with a bachelor’s degree.”

The grant also hopes to explore ways to improve student success in earning business and technology degrees because the job opportunities in these areas are predicted to expand exponentially in the next five to 10 years. Another focus of the project is helping address the critical shortage in nurses and teachers by making it easier for students to earn bachelor’s degrees in those areas. For some careers, an associate’s degree is the right choice but for others a bachelor’s degree is a better fit, Folds-Bennett said.

“Having more people with bachelor’s degrees will help us build a stronger workforce, attract more businesses, and encourage students to stay in the region for education and work. It will help us create an engine for economic vitality in the region,” Folds-Bennett said.

The grant hopes to address the commonwealth’s goal of reaching 70% of Virginians, ages 25 to 64, who attain an undergraduate degree.

The 2020 U.S. Census indicated that in Wise County only 15% of adults had obtained a bachelor’s degree. Only 11% of the entire region’s population holds a bachelor’s degree, according to the GO Virginia Region 1 Growth and Diversification plan released last December.

“This research will be a study of the students in this region, acknowledging that if we are going to close the education gap, we have to do it in partnership. We believe MECC is a key partner,” Folds-Bennett said. “We think both institutions will thrive through a stronger partnership and together we can meet the needs of the region even more.”

To build that collaboration, the schools are conducting in-depth data analysis on a longstanding project targeted at transitioning high school students to college graduates—the Appalachian Inter-Mountain Scholars (AIMS) Scholarship program.

“The AIMS Scholar program was a natural fit. Those students are primarily recruited to MECC with the intention of attending a four-year college, but they aren’t required to do so. This data analysis will help us address what’s working and what isn’t. We want to find out how we can bridge that gap,” Folds-Bennett said. “Both schools will be using the same metrics and measures to better understand what encourages these students to continue on to a bachelor’s degree or what doesn’t.”

Established in 2003 at, AIMS scholars are recruited as high school students who earn “C” or better grades, have 95% attendance and no out-of-school suspensions. Only students from Lee, Scott, Wise, Dickenson counties and the City of Norton high schools are eligible.

AIMS Scholars receive full tuition at MECC for up to three years, 72 credit hours, or completion of their first associate’s degree. They must attend starting the fall semester immediately after high school graduation, keep a 2.25 or higher GPA and maintain full-time status each semester until degree completion.

For those students who earn an associate degree from MECC and wish to obtain a bachelor’s degree at UVA Wise, they receive an additional three-year, full-tuition scholarship.

Leadership at both institutions are exploring ways to increase student success by sharing dual admissions and recruitment through advising staff, courses, immersive learning and campus activities. They are also working to improve access to both two-year and four-year programs offered by MECC and UVA Wise.

This summer, both colleges will start institutional research and data analysis which is expected to continue through January 2023.

This grant project will complete a thorough analysis of the success of AIMS Scholars in attaining a bachelor’s degree relative to other students (non-AIMS students) who transfer to UVA Wise from MECC. Data from 2009-2018 will be used in the project from both schools.

The analysis will include figuring out the success rate of AIMS scholars who graduate with a college degree including factors of timely graduation, maintained 2.25 GPA, and the rate at which UVA Wise students maintain full-time status after transferring from MECC.

Once the full analysis is finished, UVA Wise and MECC will develop pilot programs to build on the most successful aspects of the AIMS Scholar program to further improve every student’s success at both colleges. They will work to find new ways to propel students to finishing their degree, including the possibility of shared coursework and expedited pathways. They also will create ways to expand the program to a broader group of MECC students.