Posted on Tuesday, January 8, 2019

In Virginia’s community colleges (VCCS), highly qualified professors, noted for their teaching excellence, share classrooms with a relatively small number of students. System-wide, our average class size is 16 students.

Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA)

The Commonwealth’s senior universities are superb, but many students lose their way in classes taught in large auditoriums with teaching and research assistants performing much of the instruction.

In a nation where tuition debt is greater than credit card debt, VCCS students can save as much as $52,000 in tuition, room, and board by completing an associate’s degree before transferring to a state university.

Given those facts, it is perplexing that enrollment continues to fall in Virginia’s community colleges, a national trend. Fifty-seven percent of the students who attend classes in the fall of most academic years have disappeared by the following fall.

There are many reasons for low retention rates and not all are bad. Many students attend community college to receive training, obtain a job skill, or learn a foreign language. They are not interested in an associate’s degree and leave in a semester or two with their needs met.

But at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), 80% of incoming students wish to transfer and receive a bachelor’s degree. As an institution serving predominantly minority students who often struggle to pay tuition, it’s a fair question to ask: why would many students leave before finishing a two-year degree, only to pay more money for classes with higher student-professor ratios? In addition, students who transfer to four-year institutions before earning their associate’s degree run a greater risk of not receiving credit for the work they did at the community college level.
Yet, research shows many appear to adopt that inefficient route. The typical community college student who transfers to attain a four-year degree ends up earning 133 credits, 13 more than required for most bachelor’s programs. That’s the equivalent of earning – and paying for – an extra semester in college.

Time is the enemy of graduation and repeating credit hours eats into financial aid, resulting in greater tuition debt. Better retention of our transfer-oriented students also would help address the enrollment problems in the VCCS.

Left to right: NOVA Pres. Scott Ralls, Gabrielle Sulkowski (liaison to George Mason University), Davien Armstrong (liaison to Radford University), Andrea Luna (liaison to the University of Mary Washington), NOVA Prof. Charles Errico.

In an effort to address the transfer challenge, NOVA has established partnerships with Old Dominion University, Radford, Marymount, and the University of Mary Washington. Even more exciting is its ADVANCE program with George Mason University (GMU). The great majority of NOVA students who desire a bachelor’s degree will transfer to those five universities. Those partnerships establish clear curricular guidelines that guarantee that students who follow a prescribed informed pathway will have all of their courses transfer as requirements, not electives. Thus, there is an incentive to complete their associate’s degree, save money, and graduate sooner.

None of this comes easy. NOVA needs to improve advising; the most frequent criticism it receives in student surveys. Teaching faculty and counselors need to work better as a team to help students make early decisions on curricular pathways and transfer destinations. Since students trust the advice of their peers, NOVA is experimenting with a creative new initiative.

NOVA has built into its budget student alumni liaisons at each of its partnership universities. These students provide advice to potential transfers and make them feel welcome once they leave the small community college nest and fly to the larger, and frequently more intimidating, university environment.

They also establish a community of NOVA graduates at each university that maintains ties to the college that got them started on their career path. Imbedding NOVA graduates at its transfer institutions represents a new idea and recognition that the best ambassadors of the community college are its successful students. Austin Burns, the alumni liaison at Radford University, is “excited about being able to take charge, connect people with each other, and with the resources to help them along their journey.”

On October 29, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam participated in a celebration of the ADVANCE partnership between NOVA and GMU. Jointly admitted and with access to resources at both NOVA and GMU, the partnership provides success coaches that streamline students along curricular pathways that ensure a seamless transition from the associate to bachelor degree programs. This could not have happened without the collegial relationship between GMU’s president Angel Cabrera and NOVA president Scott Ralls combined with discipline specific dialogues between the faculty at the two institutions. The clear winners are the students.

From Left: NOVA Pres. Scott Ralls, Governor Ralph Northam, GMU Pres. Angel Cabrera

The retention problem in the VCCS is symbolic of a national problem. Two-thirds of the more than three million high school graduates this year are currently enrolled in college. If history is an indicator, more than half of them will drop out within six years. If tuition debt for college graduates is often overwhelming, imagine the frustration of those who are in debt and have no degree to show for it. As one frustrated university colleague stated: “Where else can we take someone’s money and not guarantee them something in return?”

At NOVA, as with its 22 Virginia sister institutions, about one-fifth of our students are the first in their family to seek a college education. They work, raise families, and struggle to make ends meet. The odds are against them. While students from families earning more than $90,000 have a 1-in-2 chance of earning a bachelor’s degree by age 24, the chances plummet – incredibly – to 1-in-17 for those from families making less than $35,000.

Those statistics are sobering. We like to think of the community college as the Ellis Island of the twenty-first century, the path to a better future. But that analogy is meaningless if the income gaps in America produce more frustration than success. Reducing tuition debt, accelerating graduation rates, negotiating guaranteed transfer agreements, and establishing student-to-student liaisons are small steps in the right direction.

Those from privileged backgrounds will probably make it without those reforms, but those are not the students we teach in our community colleges. Reduced retention rates in the VCCS result in RIF’s and budget reductions, but perhaps and more importantly, they reflect that we need to do a better job in helping the students that we serve.

Dr. Scott Ralls is president of Northern Virginia Community College. Email him at Dr. Charles Errico is professor at NOVA and chair of the VCCS Chancellor’s Faculty Advisory Committee. Email him at'

Jim Babb

Jim Babb works for Virginia's Community Colleges in the Office of Strategic Communications.

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