Posted on Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission – more commonly referred to by its acronym, JLARC – spent more than a year studying the operations of Virginia’s Community Colleges. JLARC’s staff just recently concluded its work with a final report that was accepted by the commission during its regular September meeting.

We recently sat down with Dr. Glenn DuBois, chancellor of the VCCS, to get his take on what the report’s findings mean and what happens next.

1. Why did JLARC study the VCCS?
GD: At the end of the day, this is just a function of co-equal branches of government. JLARC is how the legislative branch examines the way executive branch agencies operate. This most recent report represents the third time in our 51-year history that JLARC has studied Virginia’s Community Colleges, and the first time in more than 25 years. The previous studies occurred in 1977 and 1991. In recent years, JLARC has looked into Virginia’s public universities – a study that our colleges were not involved in – and the state’s workforce development system – a study that our colleges were involved in significantly. The Virginia General Assembly decided during the 2016 that it was time again to study us. I’m glad they did. I think our colleges are well run, but it can be helpful to see ourselves as outsiders do and find things that we can do better.

Chancellor DuBois

2. All told, the JLARC report contained 21 recommendations. Did any of them surprise you?
GD: Not really, to be honest. We take pride in being Virginia’s largest higher education provider and the state’s most affordable higher education option. We are encouraged to be the leading higher education provider to people who are older, poorer, attend classes only part-time, and often are the first in their family’s history to attend college. The JLARC team found evidence supporting all of those things. The challenges our colleges face, according to the report, are largely ones we’re already working on. Our enrollments have been declining, just like community colleges across the nation. Too many of the students who begin with us leave before earning a postsecondary credential, which again is aligned with national trends. Complete 2021, our six-year strategic plan, was adopted a few years ago to keep us focused on those challenges and working to resolve them. And we agree with the report’s conclusions that Dual Enrollment and college transfer can work better for students and families, but improving them requires working with our respective partners in K-12 school districts and universities. Efforts are already under way in both regards.

3. On one hand, the report seemed critical of VCCS student completion data but on the other hand, it indicated that VCCS numbers are in line with national averages.
That’s certainly a challenge, and it’s not exclusive to Virginia. Some of that is due to the life circumstances of the people we serve. That’s a different population than what’s typically being served at our universities. The challenges they face, and the challenges we face in serving them are different, too.

We take this very seriously because we know there’s a lot at stake. When I was growing up, it was pretty common to see community college students take what’s called a skill-builder approach to their career. That means they come in for a class or two when they need to obtain or sharpen a particular skill. People are doing that today. But, the workplace is rapidly changing. Sooner than we realize, people who don’t hold a postsecondary credential – and by that I mean anything from an industry-recognized credential to a traditional associate or bachelor’s degree – won’t even be considered for what we call the “good jobs,” positions that offer healthcare, retirement benefits and the salary that can support a family.

It will be on us to elevate the goals of more of our students, to get them to see the benefits of finishing the program they begin with us. And it falls to us to ask the tough questions and make the changes necessary in what happens on our campuses to help more of our students earn that credential.

4. The report found some challenges with the way Dual Enrollment is currently offered. What can be done about that?
GD: The goals of Dual Enrollment, which is typically offered at high schools and taught by qualified high-school instructors, is to help students earn college credit before finishing high school, and to inspire more students to pursue a college education. As the JLARC report identified, though, there are some legitimate questions regarding the quality and rigor of some Dual Enrollment offerings; and until those issues are addressed, they will threaten the transferability of those courses. The report further confirmed that Dual Enrollment works today only for some people. We think Dual Enrollment can be more effective. We think it can serve more people, and that more can be done to ensure that it helps them earn a postsecondary credential in a shorter timeframe.

Just as importantly, our partners in the Virginia Department of Education and many of the state’s superintendents believe that, too. They are looking for ways to redesign the high-school experience, and we are looking for ways to serve more of their students and graduates. Conversations are already under way, and I’m encouraged about what we can achieve for students and families with some more strategic and deliberate reforms to what we call Dual Enrollment.

5. What does the JLARC report mean for the nascent Workforce Credential Grant program?
We’re encouraged by what the report says when it comes to this new initiative. The program’s first year is now in the books and these grants helped us triple the number of high-demand credentials that our colleges put into the Virginia economy. The report says that the programs our colleges offer address critical statewide areas of high demand, and that they address local and regional workforce needs. We’re proud of that. The report also indicates that resource limitations, whether you’re talking about space, equipment or qualified instructors, will prevent us from meeting every single demand in the workforce. But our colleges have been smart in the way they’ve pursued that, and we’re getting strong indications from the businesses that we work with that these training programs are making a difference.

(BONUS) Now that the study is completed and the report has been filed, what happens next?
Typically, recommendations in a report like this fall into two buckets. The first involves external partners, like the General Assembly, to enact legislative or budgetary changes to realize. In fact, the recommendation regarding adding more academic advisers to our campuses falls into this area. More General Assembly funding would almost certainly be necessary to see that happen. The same goes for many of the recommendations surrounding Dual Enrollment, with our K-12 partners and transfer with our university partners.

The second bucket is for things that we can address through our internal governance. For example, the recommendation about what kind of information and how it is given to our State Board for the tuition-setting process falls into this category. You will see us work on this through our normal VCCS governance practices and committees.'

Jeffrey Kraus

Jeffrey Kraus loves a well-told story; a great conversation; and the perfect glass of iced tea. He’s worked as a speechwriter, a journalist and a Zamboni operator (but not all at the same time or even in that order). Don’t talk to him about Steelers football, Penguins hockey, Pirates baseball or VCU Rams basketball unless you want a lengthy conversation.

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