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Virginia Community College System

Editorial: Lack of advertising impacts Virginia's community college enrollment

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John Tyler Community College

John Tyler (becoming Brightpoint) Community College

Across Virginia enrollment numbers are down for state community colleges.

The most recent statistic coming from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia shows a steady decline in overall enrollment across all racial/ethnic groups. Student enrollment in 2021 was 144,215, compared to a decade ago when it was 197,226. During this period, enrollment fluctuated among some groups.

A shift in leadership is coming, as the State Board for Community Colleges recently appointed Russell A. Kavalhuna to oversee the 23 schools in the Virginia Community College System. Kavalhuna will succeed Glenn DuBois who is retiring at the end of June. Kavalhuna is a former federal prosecutor and previously served as president of Henry Ford College, a community college in Michigan.

During the hiring process, Gov. Glenn Youngkin expressed in a letter his discontent and criticized the state board for not giving his administration more input, as reported in The Times-Dispatch. Youngkin also said the board needs to do more to beef-up enrollment and help fill some 300,000 open jobs across Virginia.

It’s something Ron Taylor, president of the Hampton Roads Black Caucus, has homed in on as it relates to the Black community and people out looking for jobs. The Virginia Beach-based nonprofit focuses its work in the African American community to ensure representation in the political process, and to improve economic and educational opportunities, among other goals.

The group says there is evidence community colleges are not connected enough to workforce development programs to help shepherd students into jobs.

“It’s a disconnect somewhere, and they need to be connected to mesh together… to fill these jobs,” Taylor said.

The VCCS has a $1 billion budget and most schools have some kind of compatible workforce development component. But an argument also can be made that state community colleges need to advertise better, or at least devote more marketing dollars to reach potential students instead of waiting for them to find the programs.

It’s a statewide problem for the entire VCCS, which doesn’t get the information out enough, says Jonathan Romero, a registered nurse and member of Thomas Nelson (becoming Virginia Peninsula) Community College’s Board of Directors.

“(Community colleges) think you can just sit back and people will come to them. That’s been the old model. And that just doesn’t work. You’ve got to compete for these students,” Romero said.

It’s what a variety of for-profit schools traditionally have done.

According to a Brookings Institution study, using the most recent data available, “for-profits account for 40% of ad spending while educating 6% of students, outspending nonprofit colleges 4 to 1 and public colleges 20 to 1 on a per-student basis.”

The evidence can be seen in numerous billboards along the interstate highways or the daily stream of ads on daytime television when people seeking work are most likely to see program offerings.

Some of that spending at for-profit schools has flattened out since the pandemic, while spending at larger private nonprofits has ramped up. But community colleges need to catch up.

A built-in selling point, at least in Virginia, is the new G3 program — Get a skill, get a job, get ahead — which began in 2021. The program offers tuition assistance for students falling under a specific income level and pursuing high-demand fields, such as information technology or skilled trades. G3 is a last-dollar program, too, because it makes up the difference after other grants, scholarship or financial aid has been taken into consideration.

“I wish it was (available) when I was younger,” Romero said. “It allows you to go to college, and they will pay the last dollar. They will cover the difference.”

At Thomas Nelson, the school is shifting toward a greater focus on workforce development and has separated out the component into its own department.

The school also has partnered with Goodwill of Central and Coastal Virginia to create the Center for Building and Construction Trades. The program is aligned with the college to deliver workforce training leading to employment. Set in a warehouse, it replicates real work sites of apartment and building maintenance, HVAC, electrical systems and plumbing technicians.

“You can make a career. It is a strong pathway to a middle class life … for someone that otherwise wouldn’t have had it,” Romero said. “With these other programs that allow you to be able to go to school for free, the only thing that we’re missing is that we don’t advertise it.”

Another program, FastForward, launched in 2016, is a fast-track training program for high-demand industries offered through Virginia’s community colleges. It usually takes a few months to complete and students can work while earning their credential.

Around the state there also are several independent workforce development programs or councils designed to help train and transition people into jobs. But Taylor believes the community colleges need to be in greater partnership or to be in “lockstep,” with them.

Taylor says the state community college board should be working with the new chancellor to give him the guidance on what is missing.

“What is the trend? Where are we going to need people?” Taylor said. “Then we need to retool our curriculum and talk to the college presidents and work with our workforce development throughout the state, whatever region you’re in and look and see what the job demand is ... and try to get our people trained for those jobs.”

But the community needs to know these programs exist. The budgets and the funding at most nonprofit community colleges hinge on enrollment numbers.

Perhaps in his new role as chancellor, Kavalhuna may want to treat VCCS more like a business, not to make a profit, but to better market what these schools have to offer.

It may lead to the injection of life community colleges need.

— Lisa Vernon Sparks

Lisa Vernon Sparks is Opinions co-editor. Contact her at: lvernonsparks@timesdispatch.com

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