Posted on Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The Virginia State Board for Community Colleges recently approved a new policy that allows Virginia’s Community Colleges to address the issue of institutional sustainability. The “Policy to Maintain Accessibility, Effectiveness, and Efficiency with the VCCS” is a response to last fall’s JLARC report, which recommended the need for such a measure.
The VCCS created the following list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) to explain how the policy works and what it could mean for the many stakeholders of our 23 individual colleges.

Q: What, exactly, is this policy?

A: The “Policy to Maintain Accessibility, Effectiveness, and Efficiency with the VCCS” creates a process to examine the sustainability of a Virginia community college, mindful that the VCCS includes some of Virginia’s largest and smallest public institutions of higher education.

Q: Is this a new policy for the VCCS?

A: The Virginia State Board for Community Colleges adopted the measure at its regularly scheduled July 2018 meeting. The Board’s decision is effective immediately. This action marks the first time the VCCS Policy Manual addresses the issue of institutional sustainability.

Q: The VCCS has existed for more than 50 years without this policy. Why is it needed now?

A: The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) studied the VCCS in 2016-2017 – the third such study in the VCCS’ 52-year history. JLARC published its findings and recommendations in a report issued in the fall of 2017. While the report identified no “colleges or campuses that should be closed or consolidated at the present time,” JLARC did recommend that the VCCS should “Develop a formal policy and criteria for periodically examining the need to close or consolidate colleges or campuses.” The new VCCS policy is a response to that JLARC recommendation.

Q: Who designed the VCCS policy?

A: In the spring of 2018, the VCCS created a task force consisting of three former members of the Virginia State Board for Community Colleges and three former Virginia community college presidents. The individuals all reside in rural Virginia and the presidents had all worked at smaller community colleges, to ensure that the nuances and unique circumstances of the communities and colleges most likely to be touched by this policy were priority considerations in its creation. Stakeholders vetted a draft of their work before the State Board considered it.

Q: Isn’t this simply a budget question? Can’t you just look at a budget spreadsheet to determine if a college is sustainable?

A: Virginia’s Community Colleges are public institutions with a public mission. Virginia created them more than 50 years ago to address Virginia’s unmet needs in higher education and workforce training. The VCCS is compelled, today, to balance that mission with an equally important responsibility to be good stewards of the taxpayer dollars, ensuring the colleges are operating as responsibly and efficiently as possible while addressing the unique needs of the communities they serve.

Q: What does the policy do?

A: The policy establishes six guiding principles that will determine an institution’s sustainability:

1. Can it offer now the quality academic programs necessary to meet students’ transfer and workforce goals?

2. Can it offer now the quality workforce programs necessary to meet employers’ needs?

3. Is the college’s structure efficient, directing sufficient resources to teaching, learning, and direct student support services?

4. Can the college’s administrative services – the activities that rarely, if ever, directly engage students – be streamlined and improved?

5. Is the level of state funding necessary to operate this institution equitable to the community college system as a whole?

6. What role and impact does the college play in the community it was created to serve?

Q: What determines if a Virginia Community College meets those six guiding principles?

A: Each of Virginia’s 23 community colleges will be evaluated annually. A detailed assessment will be required of any college that fails all four of the following threshold factors:

1. The population of the college’s service region falling below 100,000 people;

2. An enrollment of less than 500 students (on an annual full-time equivalent basis);

3. Incurring operating costs, per FTE, that exceeds 125% of the VCCS average and rising costs over three years, or longer; and

4. A decreasing trend in the number of high-demand non-credit credentials earned at the college.

Q: What does it mean for a college to undergo a detailed assessment?

A: The college’s history and its service region will be considered along with a bevy of statistics about the college’s program offerings; how much of the college’s budget is spent on teaching, learning, and student support; and the college’s impact on its local economy.

Q: Will the detailed assessment lead to a recommendation of closing a college?

A: While that is possible, it is unlikely given the unmet higher education and workforce training needs of Virginians in every region. The research is clear: it is increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to get a good job in Virginia without earning some type of postsecondary credential. In other words, Virginia needs its community colleges just as much today – and perhaps even more – than when it created them.
It is more likely that this process will help determine what organizational structure makes the most sense for our mission, the college, the communities it serves, and Virginia taxpayers. The detailed assessment will demonstrate the potential for improved and expanded programs and/or services; the potential for net savings; an assessment of what any action means for potential partners; and impact on academic accreditation.

Q: Who conducts the detailed assessment?

A: The VCCS System Office and the college president share the responsibility of conducting the detailed assessment.

Q: How can concerned students, parents, community members, business leaders, and locally elected leaders express their thoughts about a college undergoing a detailed assessment?

A: Community colleges are part of a community’s fabric. Accordingly, the detailed assessment process will include opportunities for everyone to contribute their perspectives regarding the college. Those opportunities will likely include town hall meetings, electronic questionnaires, and other methods of data collection.

Q: What happens with the detailed assessment is finished?

A: The Chancellor of the Virginia Community College System will share the results of the detailed assessment with stakeholders, including accreditation organizations, and make a recommendation regarding the institution’s sustainability to the State Board.

Q: Who ultimately decides what action, if any, will be made concerning a college that has undergone a detailed assessment?

A: The Virginia State Board for Community Colleges would make such a decision. The Board’s authority is the final say in the matter, according to the Code of Virginia.'

Virginia's Community Colleges

Created more than 50 years ago, the VCCS is comprised of 23 community colleges located on 40 campuses across the commonwealth. Together, Virginia’s Community Colleges serve more than 270,000 students a year in credit and workforce courses.

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