Nothing like losing a quarter of your customers to get your attention.
That basically is what has happened to Virginia’s Community College System, with last term’s enrollment down 57,000 (actually only 22 percent) from its peak six years ago during the early days of the economic recovery. That drop exceeds the total enrollment at the 17 smaller campuses and has cost the institutions millions in revenue and forced personnel cuts.
Chancellor Glenn DuBois and two of the community college presidents shared that information and spent about an hour Tuesday with the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia laying out steps underway to attract more students, which will have to happen if Virginia is to meet the goals it has set for degrees and work certifications.
DuBois, who has served as chancellor since 2001, spoke again during the meeting at Richard Bland College of his vision of “a college graduate in every household” and of abolishing the phrase “first-generation student.”
One response has been only modest increases in VCCS tuition and fees for the coming year, at 2.5 percent below the official inflation rate and in stark contrast to the four year institutions. The annual cost for a full semester load is around $5,000, but DuBois noted that is still a great deal of money for many Virginians. Students in the community colleges are older, lower income, working part time. Fifteen of the 23 schools have food banks.
Like many of his predecessors, Governor Ralph Northam has made education and workforce development a high priority and Northam talked during his campaign about lowering or eliminating the cost of attending the public community colleges. About 20 states now have some version of a “promise program” where all or some high school graduates face no tuition bills at community colleges.
DuBois said that remains under discussion, which was confirmed a bit later in the meeting by the Governor’s Chief Workforce Advisor Megan Healy. But with a price tag in the hundreds of millions of dollars, “I don’t think that’s going to happen this year,” Healy said. In 2019 the General Assembly will be considering budget amendments, but the Governor doesn’t do his own full budget until 2020.
Absent a sudden commitment to free or almost free tuition, a VCCS task force responding to the situation focused heavily on marketing and process improvements. They are leaving the comfort zone, DuBois said, using words like “pivot” and “evolve.”
What if students didn’t have to apply to attend? The system is working on an open enrollment approach, but it isn’t there yet. It is making progress on reducing the paperwork and migrating the application process to smart phones. People should enroll in one day, “one and done,” said President Janet Gullickson of Germanna near Fredericksburg. “Believe it or not, that’s radical.”
The task force also said to make scheduling, degree planning, advising and even payment and financial aid compatible with the mobile environment. An early alert system can flag a struggling student, so a counselor reaches out to them rather than the other way around.
Do people understand how an associate degree or even a workforce certificate can boost their income? Better marketing may spread the word about the FastForward program which offers reimbursement grants on completion of a workforce credential. The grants “sold out” in their first two years and the General Assembly boosted the funding for this new budget, which may sell out again.
The target audience is no longer 18 to 24-year-olds. DuBois mentioned a Winchester man who lost his long-time job at a recycling center, came to the community college looking for his GED, but in 12 weeks earned a manufacturing technician certificate. He quickly landed a job with 40 percent more pay and, for the first time in his life, full benefits. He will be highlighted as the 10,000th FastForward graduate.
Another popular certificate program for forklift operations takes just four days. Before any of these programs is approved there is a demonstrated demand for the skills.
Gullickson mentioned a basic marketing problem she found at Germanna when she started – no one able to translate for Spanish students dealing with administrative matters. With the changing demographics in that region, the website needed a Spanish version, at an 8th grade reading level so the parents of potential students could understand it.
Work continues eliminating remaining barriers or duplicate requirements for students seeking to start at a community college and then transfer to a four-year institution. There are state grants for that process, too, which not long ago was getting the most attention as a new role for the community colleges. But based on comments Tuesday, the long-term response to the current challenge may be a system that looks more like its original 1960’s focus on workforce training.