New BlueSky Institute seeks students for second year of pioneering IT training program

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / BlueSky Tennessee Institute Executive Director Brad Leon stands outside the BlueCross BlueShield complex on March 5, 2021, in Chattanooga.

Among all colleges and universities in Tennessee, only 45% of students who enter college ultimately get either an associate's degree within four years or a bachelor's degree within six years, according to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

The commission found the biggest share of college dropouts comes in the first year of school when students are trying to adjust to the demands of higher education.

A new educational program started this fall in Chattanooga appears to be faring much better in engaging and maintaining student enrollment, at least so far.

The new BlueSky Institute, which BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee and East Tennessee State University (ETSU) jointly launched in August to provide an accelerated college degree on a corporate campus, has maintained all 32 of its initial students this fall. Applications for the next class starting in the fall of 2023 have already doubled last year's level.

"We have a long way to go in our training, but so far, I think we're doing great," BlueSky Tennessee Institute Executive Director Brad Leon said in an interview during an open house for the school over the weekend. "I think there are some components of this program that are really starting to resonate, which is great for the students and great for BlueCross. If this is as successful as I hope it will be, I think this can be a real model for changing the model of higher education for many students. If we can inspire others to create programs like this to provide a tighter link between higher ed and the workforce, that would be great for students and great for employers."

The college program housed in BlueCross's corporate office atop Cameron Hill is preparing students to earn bachelor's degrees in computer science from ETSU in only 27 months while working alongside BlueCross employees and executives. The model affords students the chance to get a college degree without incurring any debt and a pathway into a lucrative IT career with Chattanooga's biggest private employer and the state's biggest health insurer.

ETSU has two faculty so far at the Chattanooga facility -- and eventually will add another two -- to offer onsite computer science and IT courses. Other general education courses are taken online. The program is slated to grow to up to 100 students, but Leon said "it is way more important for us to be successful with the students that we have than to grow quickly.

"We will grow if we see that the support model can work with this number of students," he said.

BlueSky is unique in offering both IT and executive mentors from BlueCross for each student and offering regular Friday afternoon lessons in time management, leadership, listening and other soft skills to go along with the technical skills they are taught.

In the second year of the program, each student also will work in internship positions in four key areas of IT at BlueCross -- project management, app development, cybersecurity and infrastructure and operations. Students will have the chance to be paid during their internships at BlueSky, and so far, state and private scholarships have covered all of the tuition and other expenses of the college courses for BlueSky students.

Students are applying for the BlueSky Institute from across Hamilton County. Isaiah Cooke, who is currently working and studying in another apprenticeship-style program at the Legacy Box Academy, was among the first 20 students admitted for BlueSky's second cohort of students.

"I like the fact that I'm not just sitting in a classroom all day, but I get a chance to both learn and work with my hands and work on my own," Cooke said.

Before enrolling at the LegacyBox Academy this fall, Cooke took a computer science class when he was at East Ridge High School and developed an interest in computers and programming that he hopes to hone at BlueSky.

Kyle Helms, a graduate of Chattanooga School for Arts and Sciences, said he first heard about the program at the BlueSky Video Game Challenge and was immediately intrigued by the prospect of getting a bachelor's degree and landing a well-paying job in a little over two years time.

"It's been great so far," he said during the weekend open house.

Ben Wongmanee, a first generation American from Thailand who previously attended both East Hamilton High School and McCallie School, also said the program has exceeded his expectations.

"It is honestly a really incredible experience because BlueSky offers a direct pathway into the workforce," he said. 'The opportunity to be a part of something that is really new and to be a trailblazer was also very exciting to me."

Haley Wilson, the student recruitment coordinator for BlueSky, left her job as an English teacher at East Ridge Middle School to take a role as head of recruitment at the BlueSky Institute earlier this year.

"I think this program is truly changing higher education games," she said. "It's an opportunity that other students are not getting and to me it just makes the most sense for college to really prepare you with on-the-job training and to be ready to go to work as soon as you graduate."

BlueCross helped establish the institute to help meet its growing demand for information technology talent. Tennessee colleges and universities are producing only about 1,000 IT graduates a year, which in less than 25% of the annual demand for such workers, Leon said.

The first BlueSky class began in August and the program is accepting applications for next fall's class of incoming students through Jan. 19. Students must be admitted to ETSU for the program and may apply and find out more information about the program at

Interviews will be conducted at BlueCross on Feb. 3-4 and enrollment notifications will be made by Feb. 20.

Contact Dave Flessner at or 423-757-6340. Follow him on Twitter @DFlessner1.