NVCC has role in college-completion campaign

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 29, 2010; 8:30 PM

Northern Virginia Community College will be part of a $15 million, nationwide initiative announced Wednesday to give adults the chance to complete degrees they started but did not finish.

An estimated 37 million U.S. adults fall into the nebulous category of educational attainment commonly termed "some college." And in the Obama administration's campaign to regain the world lead in rates of college completion, they are the low-hanging fruit.

The Lumina Foundation, an Indianapolis nonprofit group focused on college completion, announced a four-year effort to support 19 initiatives that are projected to yield 45,000 additional degrees. The Obama administration has a goal of 5 million new degrees and certificates by 2020.

At least two of the programs supported by Lumina aid college-completion efforts in the Washington area. One is a project launched in December by Goodwill Industries International of Rockville in partnership with NVCC and two pilot sites in other parts of the country. The program is intended to provide returning students with coursework and career skills. A $250,000 grant will expand the program to 20 new sites.

Another is Project Win-Win, initiated by the Institute for Higher Education Policy in the District to identify "near-completers" and help them finish their studies. A $1.3 million grant will expand the effort from a pilot program to 35 institutions nationwide, including NVCC and five other Virginia community colleges.

A recent report from the nonprofit College Board puts the United States 12th in the world in college completion, with 40.4 percent of young adults holding at least an associate degree. Canada leads the world, with a 55.8-percent completion rate.

Dozens of nonprofits and industry associations have rallied around the cause of retaking the world lead, and some have set goals of their own. Lumina suggests a target of a 60 percent rate by 2025.

Traditional colleges have pledged to do their part. But industry leaders say that they alone aren't likely to produce millions of additional graduates. Attention has turned to community colleges, whose completion rates often hover in the single digits.

Jamie Merisotis, Lumina's chief executive, said the academy may have to look beyond traditional students to meet President Obama's goal.

"It's highly unlikely that the nation is going to meet its growing need for highly educated workers simply by focusing on recent high school graduates," he said in a conference call. "We think we'll be short by about 3 million degree holders between now and 2018."

The Lumina grants support a variety of projects, mostly small pilots with some demonstrated success in helping adults complete degrees.

In its 2009-10 pilot, Project Win-Win yielded nearly 600 associate degrees at nine schools and identified nearly 1,600 potential degree recipients, largely by mining data for former students who had enough - or nearly enough - credits for a degree.

That initiative and others found "surprisingly large numbers of students who had completed nearly all of their credits," said Holly Zanville, program director at the foundation. Sometimes, she said, the impediment to completion is as trivial as "the student didn't pay their library fine, or there was a parking problem." Some students left school without a degree and unaware "how close they were."

Non-completers are a group that much of the higher education community had ignored.

That changed when it became clear that helping older adults complete degrees was one route to the higher national graduation rate pursued by Obama's American Graduation Initiative.

"It's really sort of morally objectionable to write off everyone over 30," Merisotis said, in an interview.

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