A better bridge

(Seated from left) George Mason University President Ángel Cabrera, Gov. Terry Terry McAuliffe and Northern Virginia Community College President Scott Ralls display the signed MOUs. (Photo: NOVA)

A new partnership between a Northern Virginia community college and a local university not only aims to increase graduation rates and help students save time and money, it also hopes to meet the workforce needs of local employers.

The announcement of the partnership between Northern Virginia Community College — locally known as NOVA — and George Mason University this week drew not only top leaders from both institutions, but also local and state lawmakers — including Gov. Terry McAuliffe — as well as officials from major employers in the Washington, D.C., suburbs and throughout the state.

According to officials, ADVANCE: A NOVA Mason Partnership will create for students a single point of admission and financial aid, a dedicated advisor from admission at NOVA through graduation from Mason, and realignment of curricula to ensure students don’t lose credits when they transfer.

“We’re designing a new kind of program that will be a single institutional experience,” said Michelle Marks, Mason’s vice president for academic innovation and new ventures. “It could be a commonwealth model, and a national model.”

A natural transition

Students who earn a four-year Mason degree two years after transferring from NOVA can save a full year of tuition, according to officials. Almost 3,000 NOVA students annually transfer to Mason, which is Virginia’s largest public research university. About 45 percent of Mason graduates start at NOVA.

The idea is to help first-generation students, immigrants and others who start at a community college transition smoothly to a university and then land a good job in their selected field. NOVA President Scott Ralls said he wants to move the “bottom 20 percent” of students at NOVA to the “top 20 percent” at Mason.

“It’s about inclusive excellence,” Ralls said.

The program is expected to accept its first students into NOVA in fall 2018. The plan is to add five academic programs to the partnership every year, starting with those in Mason’s engineering, business, science, and humanities and social science colleges.

The partnership is an outgrowth of an experiment the two institutions launched two years ago with a bachelor’s program in mechanical engineering that offered dual enrollment at both schools. Instructors from Mason and NOVA partnered to develop a curriculum and also ensured students had academic advisers to guide them.

Grace Billingsley, a graduate of Northern Virginia Community College who transferred to George Mason University, highlights her experience. (Photo: NOVA)

Agreements between community colleges and four-year institutions have rapidly increased across the country in recent years, but many of those partnerships still have stumbling blocks, especially when it comes to transferring course credits. The average community college transfer student loses about 14 credits when they transfer to a baccalaureate institutions, Ralls said, who noted that means these students lose time and money.

That’s why the academic advising portion of ADVANCE is crucial.

“This is where we can really turn the corner,” Ralls said.

Work and the economy

Virginia’s governor sees the partnership as not only critical to providing higher education access, but also as a key strategy to diversifying the state’s economy and attracting businesses. And when those companies come, they will want a ready-to-work skilled workforce.

“We have got to fill these jobs or they’ll go elsewhere,” said McAuliffe, who touted the state’s recent success in lowering unemployment as well as bringing new companies to Virginia, such as Nestle, and helping start-up businesses, like vineyards and microbreweries.

As a show of force of their support, several key local businesses attended the announcement at Mason on Tuesday, including the CEOs of Northrup Grumman and Vencore, who noted challenges in finding enough qualified workers for available positions. A recent survey of members by the Business Roundtable indicated that 95 percent of companies have significant issues finding qualified workers.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.