Progressive Voice: Want Equity in Higher Education? Look in Our Own Backyard

Progressive Voice is a bi-weekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

By Rosaelena A. O’Neil

My daughter finally convinced me to upgrade my cell phone. I had been operating with a device that was about seven generations behind the times. She said, “Mom, it’s an investment worth making. What are you waiting for?”

When I fired up the new phone I couldn’t believe what I had been missing. I have a new appreciation for a “cell phone” – turns out it is a super computer!

In a similar vein, when we talk about higher education – and community colleges in particular – some people maintain an outdated, limited world view. Some believe community colleges like NOVA are “grade 13” or the higher education alternative for those less fortunate.

While the mission has always been to promote economic and social mobility, NOVA (Northern Virginia Community College) has seen an enormous “upgrade” in recent years. NOVA embodies equity and excellence in higher education.

Joel Vargas, a 2011 Wakefield alumnus, went to NOVA and earned his Associates degree in engineering. “My NOVA education gave me skills and perspective that positioned me to be successful leading diverse teams,” says Vargas. Today he is an established business owner and project manager and notes, “In my business we like to groom and grow talent. I see a bright future and long-term career in construction management.”

In education, NOVA has enabled equity through cost (less than half of the tuition and fees of other institutions); access (easy enrollment, flexible schedules, targeted advising and nearby campuses on public transit); responsiveness and agility (wrap-around services that meet students where they are and a key partner to the business community). A few examples:

  • NOVA is urgently deploying the Reemploy Virginia Initiative launched by Gov. Ralph Northam in October. NOVA already distributed nearly $1.8MM for tuition and fees to re-skill northern Virginians jobs in high-demand fields who are unemployed or underemployed due to the pandemic.
  • NOVA was awarded the Greater Washington Innovation Award for Jump Start, a tuition-free summer online course program for graduating high school seniors to earn college credit – a pandemic rapid-response program.
  • NOVA and Arlington Public Schools are partners. Arlington graduates pursue technical and baccalaureate pathways or launch into ADVANCE – a co-enrollment pathway with George Mason University concluding in a four-year degree at a fraction of the cost. Our high school students benefit from increasingly diverse dual enrollment opportunities – college credit-bearing freshman and sophomore courses in English, social sciences, math and specialized science labs.

Kate Bates, President and CEO of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, notes, “Businesses in Arlington need a well-educated and skilled talent pipeline. NOVA is essential to achieving the goal of an educated regional workforce.” Looking at its range of students, NOVA is a living example of equity, serving high school graduates, adult learners, career switchers, veterans, and individuals wanting to upskill to maintain a competitive edge.

Arlingtonian Kallan Moore, who says she “wandered” after finishing a liberal arts degree, notes, “I’m more confident today in my ability to gain new skills. I credit NOVA for helping me see that I was capable of working in a field that I had perceived as inaccessible and intimidating.” Moore says that “NOVA took the mystery and jargon out of tech. I can see building a career that connects tech with my current work in the law.”

Dr. Villagran-Glover, VP for Student Services at NOVA’s Alexandria campus, adds, “This is what education equity is all about – open access, guidance and support – for everyone.”

As for the future, NOVA is partnering with Virginia Tech, via its emerging Innovation Campus, to design a comprehensive pathway that could connect Arlington students as early as middle school on through master’s degrees or beyond. Imagine the benefits to an eighth-grader at Williamsburg or Gunston, a sort of zipline to applied internships and possibly a full-time high paying job.

NOVA has been in our backyard for more than five decades. Today NOVA’s enrollment is up – nearly 2.5% over last year. It has become the talent pipeline of the region, a critical partner to the business community and one pathway for those seeking a traditional four-year education.

“Students of all ages and walks of life build their education and high-demand skills here,” says Dr. Annette Haggray, Provost of NOVA’s Alexandria campus. “They build dreams and economic opportunity for themselves and their families.”

NOVA is not just an alternative path, rather it is an education superhighway with many ramps.

Rosaelena A. O’Neil is a longtime educator at Georgetown University, School of Foreign Service. She currently serves as Chair of the Northern Virginia Community College Board, representing Arlington County, and serves on the National Board of the Association of Community College Trustees. She is also an active member of the APS Career, Technical and Adult Education committee.