AT A GLANCE
Some popular programs Virginia College offers in Chattanooga:
• Business administration
• Criminal justice
• Healthcare reimbursement
• Medical assistant
• Medical billing and coding
• Medical office management
• Office administration
• Pharmacy technician
• Salon management
Source: Virginia College
Traditional students graduate from high school, attend a college of their choice and then enter the work force or pursue a higher degree.
Those aren’t the students Virginia College is looking for.
Virginia College is envisioned as a direct technical training program, with courses on everything from professional conduct to how to draw blood, said Michael Oertle, president of Virginia College in Chattanooga.
“Our average student is 25 to 35 years old, primarily female; a fair number are parents and very often single parents,” he said. “They’re looking for change in their life. They may or may not have ever worked, and they may or may not have ever been to school.”
According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 70 percent of all students attending college have “nontraditional characteristics” such as being a single parent, attending class part-time, working full-time or not having graduated from high school.
Yet with whatever challenges students bring to the table, Virginia College manages to place nearly three-quarters of all students with an employer, Oertle said.
Virginia College is designed to give those students a second chance — students who decided to forgo schooling early in life but later rediscovered the value of a degree.
Expansion doubles campus
The program is popular enough that administrators are planning a 10,000-square-foot expansion to the school’s Brainerd campus in coming days for about $750,000, nearly doubling their space and expanding enrollment to between 750 and 800 students, up from about 460.
The 35,000-square-foot Chattanooga campus, opened in 2006 for $3 million, is part of a for-profit 19-school system owned by Birmingham, Ala.-based Education Corp. of America, which also runs the Ecotech Institute, Culinard culinary school and Golf Academy of America.
The company was founded by a group of former Coca-Cola executives. Oertle was formerly vice president of supply management at The Coca-Cola Co.
With the planned expansion, “we’re moving the health classes to the new section to open up space for our business program,” Oertle said.
Health care focus
The college’s mainstay health program, which attracts 70 percent of enrollees, is unique in that the course is redesigned every two years with help from local hospital administrators, said Heather Cronin, student services associate.
“Virginia College provides the majority of medical assistants to this area,” she said. “The hospitals come to us, look at the textbooks and tell us what they need.”
There aren’t classes in French philosophy or basket weaving, said Al Robinson, who was voted instructor of the quarter, because students only want to learn specific skills to get specific jobs.
The school employs 117 people, many of whom are part-time but who will be promoted to full-time following the expansion.
“Our students want to fast-track — they’re here to get a job,” Robinson said.
Students take about three technical classes per quarter for 18 to 24 months, depending on their course of study, as opposed to traditional university studies that take at least twice as long, said Richard Johnson, director of marketing.
“It’s a means to an end,” said Johnson, who also doubles as “soft skills” instructor. “For some students, this isn’t just the first time they’ve been to college. It’s the first time anyone from their family has been to college.”
Manners, professionalism on tap
So-called “soft skills” are the social graces, professionalism and attitude that employers look for when interviewing candidates, he said.
Sometimes these behavioral traits are passed down by family members, professors and peers, but usually they aren’t.
To compensate, students wear uniforms — either scrubs or business attire — and are graded on attendance and attitude.
They’re also trained in how to interview for a job, how to shake hands and even what types of e-mail addresses are unacceptable.
“Sexyblueeyes23 is not acceptable,” Johnson said.
After students have learned skills for their field of study, Virginia College attempts to place them in an externship with a local employer, which is similar to an internship.
“Career services here is not voluntary. We require them to meet with us where we prepare them to be graduates and employees, said Bethany Kelly, career services associate. “Because it’s our reputation on the line, too.”
Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...