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Virginia is ready to invest in higher ed

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At a time when many state governments have reversed support for higher education, it is enormously encouraging to see Virginia moving in a positive and optimistic direction.

The $200 million in new funding for Virginia's higher education system proposed by Gov. Bob McDonnell will have a substantive benefit by helping to make a college education more affordable and accessible for Virginia students.

Just as important — possibly more so, in the long run — this investment sends a huge message to existing Virginia businesses and potential job-creating investors. Namely, that Virginia will not flinch from its commitment to a well-trained, informed and prepared workforce.

No one expects the pressures on higher education — or the pressures on the state's resources, for that matter — to relent any time soon. The governor's proposal must be adjoined with creative and collaborative effort made by the institutions themselves.

In other words, we must make more of what we have, remain accountable to the students and families footing an increasingly large portion of the bill, and explore new techniques. Some chore.

Fortunately, one important reform undertaken in Virginia a few years ago has already begun to pay off. The idea is straightforward: On the basis of institution-by-institution agreements, a student may attend one of Virginia's 23 community colleges and, upon successfully completing an associate's degree program, obtain a guaranteed transfer to one of the state's highly ranked colleges and universities.

From my perspective, it really changes the game for the better.

VCU's most recent agreement with the Virginia Community College System took effect this fall and, in addition to setting the conditions for transfer, provides a wide range of benefits to students, including access to VCU's libraries and academic advisers prior to their actual transfer.

Community college students also have the ability to participate in lecture activities consistent with their academic goals, receive discounted admission to athletic and cultural events and have the opportunity to set up VCU email accounts and receive updates on events.

In short, if a student has his or her sights on VCU, we do not wait until a student shows up on campus to begin integrating them into university life and work. This eases the transition and allows transfer students to hit the ground running.

Another important provision that was introduced in 2007 established the Community College Transfer Grant Program.

There are specific criteria: a minimum grade-point average and demonstration of financial need. But the money — up to $1,000 a year — helps narrow the difference between the cost of community college and a state four-year school. An additional $1,000 per year may be awarded to students enrolled in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and health, also known as STEM-H programs.

This is working. Since the beginning of the transfer grant program in the fall of 2008, more than $1.44 million has been awarded to more than 1,100 students.

But to really appreciate the significance of Virginia's working partnerships between its four-year institutions and the VCCS, you have to locate it in the context of the broader challenge faced by students and their families.

In this economy, many Virginia families look at higher education and immediately calculate costs and outcomes. A big question looms: Will it be worth it?

Initial entry into a Virginia community college, rather than a state four-year school, provides an efficient and effective alternative at no sacrifice to ambition. The high quality of instruction at Virginia's community colleges allows students to advance, develop their skills (at less hazard to their parent's bank accounts) and then move into a four-year program.

Students are doing so, we are beginning to see, with a greater assurance of success. Just increasing the numbers of college freshmen on the rolls is not really the goal. What we want are well-trained graduates, fully prepared to move to the next level of academic or professional learning, if not immediate employment. Virginia's community colleges are helping us achieve that outcome.

Another highly satisfying aspect of Virginia's guaranteed transfer program is the growing numbers of veterans taking advantage of it. Virginia's community colleges, right back to the Vietnam War era, have long helped veterans transition into careers.

The transfer guarantee throws open the doors to the best academic programs Virginia has to offer. It makes more things possible, which is the ultimate goal of Virginia's colleges and universities.

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