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Innovative NOVA program focus of national think tank study

“America is losing its lead in higher education” according to a study by the New America Foundation. The report, “Pathway to the Baccalaureate: How One Community College Is Helping Underprepared Students Succeed,” describes Northern Virginia Community College’s approach to addressing the nation’s college remediation crisis.

“It’s becoming increasing clear that as a nation we need to produce more college graduates to meet the changing demands of our economy and remain globally competitive,” said Richard Whitmire and Camille Esch, the study’s authors. “For low-income students and first-generation college goers, the local community college is often the most practical point of entry into higher education.”

The report goes on to say “many of these new community college students arrive with the kind of life circumstances that make it hard to succeed in school, like limited financial resources, demanding family obligations, or difficulty finding transportation or child care. Community colleges across the country are trying any number of new programs and strategies, but most are just at the beginning stages of understanding what works and why. Northern Virginia Community College – commonly known as NOVA – is deeply examining these questions.”

Pathway to the Baccalaureate was launched five years ago to help first-generation and other at-risk students succeed in college. Program participants are supported as they move from high school to NOVA and on to partner institution George Mason University or another four-year college.

The program puts transition counselors into local high schools to provide the students with one-on-one assistance. Pathway counselors build lasting relationships with students and help them find resources they need to be successful, from finding financial aid to taking placement tests. At NOVA, students are monitored by retention counselors who help them stay on track and begin making the transition to a four-year college. Many Pathway participants enroll at partner institution George Mason but others have attended Virginia Tech, Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Mary Washington and more.

According to the report, “none of Pathway’s components is especially novel or expensive. The difference is that Pathway is centered on the student and designed to meet a range of needs – academic, financial or personal – through one coherent program. It’s a commonsense approach that was designed by someone who understands what it’s like to struggle in an unfamiliar college environment.”

“I had such a difficult time adjusting from high school to college,” Program Director Kerin Hilker-Balkissoon told the study authors. “A lot of what I structured for Pathway is based on my own person experience of being on my own and trying to learn the ins and outs of college, how to study, the secrets of success. Pathway is what I wish I had known, what I wish someone had walked me through.”

NOVA President Robert G. Templin Jr. says collaboration with local school districts and four-year institutions is the key to success. “Early on, it became clear that NOVA could not be successful acting alone, whether in providing college access to underserved populations or in achieving student success among our at-risk students,” he said. “We would have to go beyond the conventional notions of ‘partnerships’ with our high schools and our neighboring university. Beyond articulation and more than dual enrollment agreements, our efforts needed to be systemic and integrated, able to reach significant scale, have high impact, and be capable of being sustainable.”

Early outcomes are positive. “Given that Pathway students tend to be poorer, are more likely to be immigrants or children of immigrants, and are more likely to have disabilities (30 percent of Pathway students have disabilities, compared to 10 percent in the college’s general student population), one would expect the comparison sample from outside the Pathway program to show higher retention rates and better grades. Instead, Pathway students are outperforming their peers on measures of retention, grade point average, and graduation rate,” the study says.

About 100 Pathway participants have graduated from NOVA and are currently enrolled at George Mason, where some will graduate this spring. Another 100 have transferred to other four-year institutions. These numbers are expected to grow substantially in the near future.

Co-author Esch praised the program in her blog. “NOVA’s Pathway program provides a promising model for what can be done in the absence of new resources or forward-thinking policy changes. To reach our national goals for college graduation, we’re going to need more of this kind of focused, innovative programming.”

Pathway to the Baccalaureate currently operates in 31 high schools and centers across Northern Virginia, including 12 sites in Fairfax County, 10 in Loudoun County, eight in Arlington County and one in Alexandria City. Three additional school divisions will join the program in the fall: Prince William County Public Schools, Manassas City Public Schools and Manassas Park City Schools. Approximately 3,600 students will participate in Pathway to the Baccalaureate in the current academic year, with an additional 2,100 high school students expected to join the program annually.

To learn more about Pathway to the Baccalaureate, visit www.nvcc.edu or contact Hilker-Balkissoon at khilker@nvcc.edu or 703-323-3063.

The study includes extensive interviews with students and staff, and is available at http://www.newamerica.net/publications/policy/pathway_to_the_baccalaureate. The New America Foundation is a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy institute that invests in new thinkers and new ideas to address the next generation of challenges facing the United States.

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.