According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2014 only 65.9 percent of high school graduates enrolled in college, marking the lowest enrollment rate in a decade. And according to the U.S. Department of Education, the majority of those not enrolling in postsecondary education are from low-income households.
However, institutions like Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) are working to shatter these socioeconomic barriers to provide all students the opportunity to pursue a college education.
With more than 75,000 students enrolled for credit at six campuses located in Alexandria, Annandale, Loudoun, Manassas, Springfield, and Woodbridge, Va., NOVA is the second-largest community college in the nation. Of these students, 52 percent are from minority racial or ethnic groups.
The school’s longstanding Pathways to the Baccalaureate program is its strongest effort to increase diversity to date. Pathways is a consortium of 10 educational institutions in Northern Virginia that includes K-12 public school systems, NOVA, and George Mason University (GMU). Through the program, high school students who are more likely to face obstacles entering college or need more support to succeed academically are provided with guidance along their path from high school to community college to a four-year institution.
“The program is designed to breach the barriers of higher education,” says Everett Eberhardt, director of equity, diversity, and ADA/504 compliance at NOVA. “The purpose is to increase access to education for at-risk students.”
Founded in 2005 by NOVA and GMU, Pathways gives underrepresented students with dreams of continuing their education beyond an associate degree the chance to do so. Applicants must apply directly to the Pathways program. Once admitted, students begin their college career at NOVA before moving on to GMU or another four-year institution.
As opposed to traditional admissions practices, acceptance isn’t based on grades or academic standing, but on a student’s character.
“The focus is on applicants’ barriers, motivation, and potential — rather than merit or past academic performance,” says Kerin Hilker-Balkissoon, program director of Pathways to the Baccalaureate and executive director of College and Career Pathways. “Once our cohort is selected, our counselors do a comprehensive one-on-one intake meeting with students, where they get more specific information on each participant’s strengths, needs, and concerns.”
After starting at NOVA, students continue to receive counseling and assistance applying for scholarships and financial aid, as well as help preparing for their transition to a four-year institution. Those who complete an associate of arts or science degree with a 2.85 GPA or higher are guaranteed admission to GMU; Pathways students who don’t meet these criteria must follow the standard application process. Students have the option to apply to 40 other area universities and may be eligible for guaranteed admission if they qualify under NOVA’s individualized agreements with each of those schools.
Overall, Pathways has an impressive success rate. Of all the students in the program, 90 percent continued through to the second semester, and 81 percent returned for their sophomore year, according to 2005 through 2013 data.
For being “an innovative model for improving the underserved population,” as Eberhardt says, Pathways was awarded the Virginia Excellence in Education Award for Community Colleges in 2009. Program leaders continue to look to the future to make improvements for the next generation of students.●
Madeline Szrom is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. Northern Virginia Community College is a 2014 HEED Award recipient.