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By Robert A. Jones
Richmond, Virginia
T
he fall termhad just begun, and the chancellor of
Virginia’s community college system, Glenn DuBois, was
whizzing toward the Blue Ridge Mountains in the state
airplane. DuBois and several aides were headed for two of the
system’s upland campuses to deliver a message that was both
expected and dreaded: Systemic failure was coming for the
40-year-old collection of colleges unless major changes were
made.
Strapped into his seat, DuBois leaned toward a visitor and
spoke almost conspiratorially about the day’s upcoming events.
He knew, he said, that some faculty members were skeptical of
his reformplans. Many previous reformplans had come and
gone. But this time was different, and he was giving himself
approximately one hour with the faculty at each college to turn
them from skeptics to supporters.
“Our problems are like waves crashing on top of each
other. Big tsunamis,” DuBois said. “If we don’t acknowledge
the size of this thing, we are going down. We can’t nibble at the
edges. Today is my chance tomake the case, to give them the
whole loaf, to show themwhat’s at stake.”
The air of crisis in Virginia has built steadily over the last
three years, as it has at most community colleges across the
nation. Enrollment has exploded onmost campuses, forcing
some systems to turn away students for the first time in history.
Meanwhile, state governments have drained budgets like
vampires in the night.
This double bind has occurred, ironically, just as
community colleges
have begun to receive
widespread recognition
of their importance in
the higher education
pantheon.
Far cheaper than
four-year institutions,
community colleges teach
the vast majority of poor,
minority and immigrant
students in the nation
and offer the United
States its best chance to
regain its lost edge in
educating its young people. President Obama has become a
community college cheerleader and recently chaired aWhite
House summit to search for answers to the funding dilemma.
Few states, however, have gone as far as Virginia in
confronting the need to domore with less. When DuBois
arrives on campuses tomake his pitch these days, he brings
not only a litany of gloom—$100 million in budget cuts over
December 2010
The Virginia Plan
State’s community colleges confront the need to do more with less
the last two years; an
increase of 20,000 full-time
equivalent students in the
same period—but also his
ambitious plan to increase
the number of graduates,
to get themout the door
faster and at lower cost.
Judging the
performance of
community colleges can
be tricky because of their
multiple roles, but the
traditional measurements
suggest Virginia’s 23
colleges could use some
improvement. Their
average graduation rate of
14 percent over the past
five years puts thembelow
the national average, as
does their 14 percent rate
of transferring students to
four-year institutions.
The Virginia plan is
designed to change those
numbers dramatically
by 2015. Produced by a teamof college presidents and
administrators known as the re-engineering task force, it
attempts to grapple with some of the unique burdens of
community colleges. Here are a few:
• Unprepared students. Every year Virginia community
colleges assign roughly half of their incoming students to
remedial or developmental courses because they are not
prepared for college work. Of those, only a small percentage
succeeds. The Virginia plan will toss out its old developmental
program, replacing it with a model designed to be more
individual and productive, and will establish beachheads in
high schools to improve the quality of graduates.
• Jobs. The flip side of community colleges is vocational
job training, and Virginia plans to expand programs that offer
customized training for individual employers whose needs are
growing. Over the next four years the state promises to double
the number of such programs to include 10,000 employers
across the state.
• College dropouts. At the receiving end of the nation’s
education ills, fromdysfunctional high schools to students
without financial resources, community colleges have dismal
graduation rates. Virginia is promising to increase by 50
percent the number of students graduating or transferring
to four-year colleges, and to increase those numbers by 75
“Our problems are like waves crashing on top of each
other. Big tsunamis,” says Glenn DuBois, chancellor of
Virginia’s community college system.
The air of crisis in
Virginia has built
steadily over the
last three years,
as it has at most
community colleges
across the nation.
Jay Paul, Black Star, for CrossTalk