Glenn DuBois Column: The Future I See for Virginia Community Colleges | Columnists

By Glenn DuBois

Virginia Community Colleges have awarded over 665,000 life-changing degrees during my tenure as Chancellor. Their impact is everywhere: the historically low unemployment rate recently announced by the Youngkin administration; national media reports describing the VCCS workforce development training as a “first model”; and yet another accolade declaring Virginia’s business climate to be the best in America. In 2020, more than one million people trained at our colleges worked for more than 35,000 Virginia companies, earning nearly $36 billion in salaries.

As I approach the final debut season before my summer retreat, I think a lot about the individuals, families, and businesses that have been raised by these degrees – and what community colleges need to do to stay relevant to the future. I offer three main suggestions.

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First, community colleges must focus on the needs of adult learners. They are the future of institutions. In fact, we already see it in our programs.

The average age of students in our traditional academic transfer-oriented programs is 26 years old. Students in our FastForward short-term training programs are ten years older and average 36 years old.

Given the declining birth rate in the United States, these ages will increase, and we will gain nothing by competing with universities for this ever-shrinking pool of traditional 18-24-year-old learners. These institutions have residence beds to fill and meal plans to sell. They will adjust their admission criteria as appropriate to meet their institutional needs.

The seniors we serve will not be part of this mix. They are often parents, working a job (or two) while attending school, and they have bills to pay right now.

They can’t afford to think in terms of semesters and years. They need programs that they can complete in a few weeks or a few months. More importantly, they need these opportunities to connect them immediately to a good, high-demand job that offers salaries and benefits to support the family.

Prioritize Workforce Development

Throughout my career, our institutions have balanced two missions: academic transfer and workforce development. For much of this time, transfer was king.

When I arrived in 2001, I spent my early career signing groundbreaking statewide guaranteed transfer agreements with public and private universities in Virginia. Over a quarter of a million students transitioned from our colleges to universities during my tenure.

Today, we have these agreements with more than three dozen universities. In fact, your nearby community college is the only way to be absolutely sure that you can get into the most prestigious universities in Virginia. Start with us, take the right courses and get high enough grades. Earning your associate degree guarantees your acceptance into college.

However, the world has only become more technical since 2001. Much like our personal transitions from pagers to flip phones to BlackBerrys to smartphones, the infusion of technology into every industry has made short-term training programs essential to the success – sometimes even for those who hold a bachelor’s degree.

Although we are used to thinking of transfer first when it comes to campus planning, now is the time to prioritize workforce development. FastForward is already our fastest growing offering. These short-term, high-quality programs better meet the needs of adult learners and the companies that want to hire them.

Fix Virginia’s Outdated Funding Model

This brings me to my final suggestion: Now is the time to update Virginia’s outdated higher education funding model. As it stands, Virginia’s Basic Matching Formula fails to compensate our colleges for students enrolled in short-term degree programs and has no mechanism to help our colleges get started and maintain expensive new training paths. The elected officials we work with are often surprised to learn of these omissions in the model.

Virginia should move from what I consider to be a cost-recovery model to a more strategic, forward-looking model that supports our college leaders as they meet the training needs of the community.

I started this guest column by reciting the number of degrees that have changed my life and I will conclude by mentioning who earned them. Since 2001, the number of Black students graduating each year from our community colleges has doubled, the number of Asian graduates has tripled, and the number of Latino graduates has increased eightfold.

Our community colleges have made an increasingly diverse Virginia stronger and more educated, and I’m excited to see what the future holds for these vibrant institutions.

Dr. Glenn DuBois is retiring this summer after spending more than 21 years as Chancellor of Community Colleges in Virginia. Contact him at: [email protected]

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