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Ralls participates on panel on how America perceives higher ed.

Scott Ralls

On Thursday, May 11, NOVA President Scott Ralls participated in a panel discussion at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. The event featured experts in higher education to discuss findings of a new report, Varying Degrees: How America Perceives Higher Education. The report, done in partnership with the Gates Foundation, gauged American’s perception of the value of a college education. In addition, a three-student panel featured two outstanding NOVA students and a student from Southern New Hampshire University. Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, education reporter for the Washington Post moderated the student panel.

Lindsay Shurtliff is a Dental Hygiene student at NOVA’s Medical Education Campus. She grew up in California, and says she experienced a lot of pressure to attend a four-year university. She married young and had a baby. She worked while her husbanded attended college. When he finished, she settled on Dental Hygiene and began college. She liked the field and knew it would provide the flexibility and pay she needed. NOVA Student Ariel Ventura-Lazo is the first in his family to attend college. He says he barely graduated from high school with a 1.6 GPA. He was working, but hit a “glass ceiling.” He is also married with a young child. Jemiscoe Chambers-Black is a young mom with three kids under eight. She attends Southern New Hampshire University and will graduate this spring.

Moderator, Danielle Douglas-Gabriel of the Washington Post noted that all three panelists are parents and asked how they navigate school and work when they have a sick kid at home or other family obligations.

Chambers-Black said, “If my kid is home with a fever, I have him on my shoulder and my computer open in front of me. I just hustle and get it done. That’s what you do.”

Ventura-Lazo said when he first started college, he was just riddled with car issues. He said it would have been impossible, but the community college has a resource called The Working Student Success Network, which helped with emergency funds to allow him stay in school.

Douglas asked if the students’ perception of the value of a degree remains the same now as when they began? Chambers-Black said she had been working in the film and TV industry and was working 12 to 18 hours a day. With three kids, that was just not sustainable, so she went to college to facilitate a career change.

Shurtliff replied, “Dental Hygiene is such a great, versatile career. Many of my classmates already have a four-year degree. They are here because they see the value of this type of work, and they know they can get a great job.”

When asked how their degrees will benefit society, all agreed that society will benefit because their kids and families benefit.

“My family didn’t have access to higher education, and now they do,” Ventura-Lazo said. This will impact my kids.”

The second panel focused on educational policy issues. Rob Nabors, director of policy, advocacy and communications for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation moderated a panel with experts from higher ed., advocacy and commerce. Panelists included, NOVA President Scott Ralls; Deborah Santiago, COO and VP for Policy, Excelencia in Education; Cheryl Oldham, VP of Education Policy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and José Luis Cruz, president, CUNY Lehman.

Nabors noted a gap in minority graduation rates, when half of students seeking a degree don’t make it to graduation and where low-income students are much less likely than high-income students to have a degree by the age of 24. It’s the gap between what the education system should be doing and what is actually happening.

“How do we get to a place where students can start and finish an affordable, high-quality education?´he asked. “What’s standing in the way?”

Santiago said the majority of students start and stop college, they go part time, they go to community colleges, they transfer. Paying attention to how students are adapting to higher ed and trying to help them should be our commitment to make sure they are successful.

Ralls said we also need to rethink how we measure success. Most students are coming to us trying to get a bachelor’s degree. I want to know, six years later, if they have gotten it. Lindsay Shurtliff wanted a better job. I need to know, six years later, if she has one.

“At our institution we talk very deliberately about socio-economic mobility, that’s the purpose of our college. We talk deliberately about the American Dream and our role in that and what that means. We talk in terms of keeping costs down and keeping resources where we can to support students. That influences our thinking,” Ralls said.


For more on the Varying Degrees study or to watch the panel, click here.

Northern Virginia Community College is the largest institution of higher education in the Commonwealth of Virginia and one of America's largest community colleges. NOVA enrolls more than 75,000 students at its six campuses in Alexandria, Annandale, Loudoun, Manassas, Springfield and Woodbridge, and through NOVA Online. For more information about NOVA and its programs or services, call 703-323-3000 or visit the College's Web site, www.nvcc.edu.