Rappahannock Community College welding program

A Rappahannock Community College student worked on building a trailer during a welding class in June 2019.

Four months into the COVID-19 pandemic, students and families across Virginia continue to adapt to fall learning realities.

In K-12 schools, some districts have decided on virtual schooling for the start of the 2020-21 academic year. In other localities, families can choose between continuing online schooling and returning to in-person classes. And the passionate debate over different solutions proves one thing: A lot is on the line.

For college students, other factors complicate COVID-19 choices. The cost of tuition was an issue before the coronavirus tightened household and institutional budgets. The investment in a residential experience amid the pandemic is unsettling. The worry of committing to an academic major with uncertain job prospects is real.

As the fall draws closer, the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) is a strong case study of how to help students maintain a healthy mindset amid COVID-19. Prospective and current enrollees are empowered to reconsider their education in a more individualized manner.

“Which scenario best describes you?” reads the homepage at Rappahannock Community College. Students then are presented with eight scenarios: COVID-19 has changed my needs; I want to take classes online; I want a degree; I just graduated from high school; I need job training; I have some credits; I need help getting started; and I am a current student or RCC staff member.

With each choice, a 1-on-1 relationship with an adviser is one phone call away. Students interested in job training can parse through options ranging from pharmacy technician classes to HVAC license renewals. Students with credits can look toward customized programs that put their previous learning to good use.

Event calendars across two- and four-year campuses still are relatively up in the air. But once the pandemic does pass, we believe Virginia’s community colleges have laid a foundation for a better experience, whether face-to-face or online.

The competitive college admissions process should be less about past accomplishments — those cutthroat battles for high school accolades — and more about future ambitions — the degree or credential that prepares Virginians to enter a workforce that might look different than before.

No choice is a guarantee of success. But VCCS campuses are asking the right questions to move students of all ages away from crippling debt and toward fulfilling career pathways.

Chris Gentilviso

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