BCBST BlueSky Tennessee Institute
Brad Leon spent much of May 2022 celebrating. He and colleague Melissa Graham traveled to high schools across Hamilton County announcing potentially life-changing scholarships to the new BlueCross BlueShield BlueSky Tennessee Institute, an innovative pilot program that condenses a 4-year bachelor’s degree in computer science into 27 rigorous months with a promise of a good-paying job at completion. Students stood proudly on stage, family and friends cheering with excitement at their achievement and the opportunities ahead. For Leon and Graham, these thrilling moments are the result of years of challenging convention and finding partners willing to try something new. May was great, but they can hardly wait for August.
Solving for X
BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee (BCBST) needs more IT professionals. More than 900 people make up the BCBST technology team, with another 200 outsourced. At any point in time the company is working to fill 50 to 100 vacancies. Across Tennessee, companies need to fill 4,100 tech jobs, but our universities are graduating just 1,000 students in the field each year. The numbers don’t add up.
Meanwhile, Hamilton County Schools graduates more than 3,000 seniors annually, and leaders know it’s essential to get students connected to high-demand, high-wage career paths. In particular, a collaborative partnership between Hamilton County Schools, Public Education Foundation (PEF), Chattanooga State, and UTC has focused on increasing post-secondary degree completion in six Hamilton County high schools that face significant barriers to post-secondary completion.
J.D. Hickey, BCBST CEO, recognized that in solving for the insurer’s challenge, their efforts could also have a positive effect for Hamilton County’s young people. An idea was born.
Innovative Thinking + Equitable Recruiting and Support
Years of effort culminated in the groundbreaking partnership between East Tennessee State University (ETSU) and BCBST. Students will earn a degree from ETSU while attending classes at BCBST headquarters in Chattanooga. Accelerated study of modern networks, computer science, systems, cyber security, and information technology will be led in person by two ETSU professors. Students will also benefit from project-based learning side-by-side with BCBST IT professionals. In year two students will complete a series of internships in infrastructure operations, development, and cyber security followed by a deep dive into the field most interesting to them. All together, the 27 months of training will prepare them for a job at BCBST immediately upon completion of the program.
“Career planning doesn’t need to be a binary college/not college conversation,” Leon says. “BlueSky is an accelerated college education in a relevant, dynamic field that will continue to grow over the next 50 years. ETSU is a fantastic partner. We’ve been in complete alignment since day one.”
Diversity is a core value for BCBST, while information technology as a profession is predominantly white or asian and male. Intentional recruiting for BlueSky is laying out the welcome mat for women and students of color.
“We partnered with the Public Education Foundation to recruit applicants from priority high schools (Brainerd, East Ridge, Hixson, Howard, Red Bank, and Tyner) with the intent of reaching a diverse group of students,” Leon says. “We received 90 applications from these and other schools, and I’m certain a big selling point was that for at least our first two cohorts, all expenses are paid for every student. The scholarship opportunities we can offer because of partners like Benwood Foundation open the door to students who otherwise might not be able to afford to pursue or complete an IT college degree. It’s a game changer.”
Leon’s team extended admission offers to 33 students, with a goal of a 15-person cohort for year 1. However, unexpectedly, 32 students chose to enroll.
The cohort reflects a changing demographic — 12 are female (38%), 11 are people of color (34%), and 16 (50%) are graduates of high-priority high schools. .
“College completion stats are pretty grim,” Leon says. “Our goal is for 100% of BlueSky students to graduate.”
Graham’s work as student success manager will build supports for every student on the front end of the program. BlueSky Institute will feature daily roll and weekly individual check-ins.
“There will be no distance between a student struggling and us knowing,” Leon says. “We want to create a clear pathway so every student knows ‘There’s a place for me at BlueCross and in the workforce.’”
Ready for August
BlueSky Institute students will enjoy a learning environment designed especially for them. Classrooms are state of the art and there will be a “student union” style space for hanging out, gaming, and studying. Students also have full access to BCBST’s cafeteria, gym, health clinic, and more.
Leon has deep experience in teaching and leading education programs including Teach for America. He brings an awareness of the importance of building community within the cohort and has his eyes wide open about the academic rigor inherent to computer science training.
“The hardest work is ahead of us,” Leon says. “This degree is challenging; and we are confident in the students and our partnership with ETSU. Success for us will be getting 100% of our students through the program and into jobs here at BlueCross. We’re also hopeful other companies and universities will learn from our model as it evolves and consider how they can replicate something similar. I’ve worked with students in low-income communities. Paying off debt for 15 years after graduation isn’t feasible – and our employment challenges won’t be met with the traditional 4-year college model alone. If others try this, it will be a real win.”
(Pictured above: the inaugural class of BCBST’s Blue Sky Institute)