Immersive East Tennessee State Program Provides Accelerated Tech Degrees, Guaranteed Jobs
December 16, 2022

​East Tennessee State University (ETSU), an ACE member, and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee (BCBST) are joining forces to address an acute technology worker shortage. In Tennessee, there are approximately four times as many job openings in the sector than there are Tennesseans qualified to fill these positions, requiring companies to operate with vacancies, spend up to a year training new hires, or recruit talent from other states.

ETSU, home to one of Tennessee’s most comprehensive computer science programs, and BCBST, a leading employer in the state, recently debuted an intensive program called the BlueSky Tennessee Institute to help replenish the talent pipeline. Upon graduation, students will earn a bachelor’s degree in computing with a concentration in information systems from ETSU and a full-time job offer paying over $50,000 from BCBST.

BlueSky has accumulated enough scholarship funding to enable the first cohort to graduate debt-free, and it aims to replicate this for subsequent classes. The partners hope the program’s affordability and the career security it provides will expand the tech talent pool by attracting students who were not planning to go to college.

“Earning a college degree is transformational to the lives of our students and the BlueSky Institute will further the impact of higher education with an innovative job training model that ETSU is proud to join,” said Brian Noland, president of ETSU, when announcing the partnership.

BlueSky is distinctive in both its compact timeline and its immersiveness. Participants take classes year-round, graduating in just 27 months. Instead of attending the university’s main Johnson City campus, they study at BCBST’s Chattanooga headquarters, learning from ETSU professors who are based in Chattanooga with them. The curriculum also includes paid internships at BCBST and one-to-one mentoring from the company’s staff.

Both ETSU and BCBST have devoted considerable resources to ensuring BlueSky’s success. ETSU adapted its computing curriculum to correspond with the program’s accelerated timeline and experiential components and hired two professors solely to teach BlueSky students. Meanwhile, BCBST hired additional staff, including a student success manager, and renovated thousands of square feet in its headquarters to add classrooms equipped for both in-person and remote college instruction.

According to J. D. Hickey, BCBST’s president and CEO, these investments are well worth it.

“We believe we are training the future senior leadership of our company,” he explained to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The first cohort of 32 students began their training over the summer. During their first year, students are in class Monday through Thursday and take professional development seminars on Fridays. In their second year, their schedule will blend classes with internships in areas such as cybersecurity, database management, and end user support.

In the short term, BlueSky’s primary objective is a 100 percent graduation rate, Melissa Graham, the institute’s student success manager, told Google. Tasked with guiding students as they deal with the challenges of a nontraditional schedule and isolation from most other ETSU students, her role is critical to ensuring all students stay on track. To this end, BlueSky participants have one-on-one weekly meetings with Graham to assess their academic progress and overall well-being.

BlueSky’s organizers hope to double the number of faculty over the next year so they can accommodate larger cohorts and meet unexpectedly high demand. Leaders anticipated a 15-student first cohort, but 32 enrolled, of whom nearly half are first-generation college students.

For Denis Crnalic, a member of the first BlueSky cohort, the decision to enroll was simple.

“‘Something like this, where you can be guaranteed a job that is literally life-changing after you get out of college is something you really can’t get anywhere else,” Crnalic told the Chattanooga Times Free Press.