George Mason University senior Aida Arias Reyes prepares to speak to high-schoolers on the Pathway to the Baccalaureate, a program that helped her transfer from community college. (Mary F. Calvert/For The Washington Post)

Almost a graduate of George Mason University, Aida Arias Reyes has faced so many barriers on the way to donning her cap and gown that she practically defines what it means to be a disadvantaged student. She was even forced to win admission to the university not once but twice. Born in El Salvador, Arias Reyes was raised in a small town called Santa Catarina by a grandmother after her mother came to the United States in search of work. At the time of the handoff, Aida was a year old. At 10, she survived a major earthquake that struck in 2001 when she and her grandmother were at church. Afterward, she rejoined her mother, by then a housekeeper in Northern Virginia. Aida was able to obtain “temporary protected status” because of the quake damage in her homeland. It was an in-between sort of credential, not granting permission to immigrate, but it sufficed. She entered Fairfax County public schools in fourth grade.

Jump to early 2009 in her senior year at Mount Vernon High School. Arias Reyes, a sharp student, had dreams of going to a big-time university, joining a sorority, studying abroad. But she faced two big problems: She didn’t know where she could get financial aid, and she didn’t know how to answer questions about citizenship and residency on college applications. “In the drop-down menus, there wasn’t space to write ‘Other,’ ” she said.

For more education stories, visit The Washington Post Magazine.

As classmates were accepted at four-year colleges, one by one, Arias Reyes came to the crushing conclusion she would not be among them. “It was so hard,” she said. Her eyes welled as Arias Reyes, now 23, recalled her disappointment in an interview a few weeks ago on the GMU campus in Fairfax. “It’s still hard.”

What got Arias Reyes into the university, and on the verge of earning a bachelor’s degree this May, was, foremost, her own skill and determination. But she also benefited from an unusual higher-education experiment: a huge academic pipeline leading from dozens of public high schools through Northern Virginia Community College to George Mason.

The Pathway to the Baccalaureate, as it is called, provides counseling and support for Arias Reyes and thousands of others from challenging circumstances toward bachelor’s degrees. It targets at-risk students and others who otherwise might conclude, for whatever reason, that they are not college-bound. These students are identified in high school as early as 10th grade. They enroll in the two-year college and are guided into courses that build toward degrees in their fields of interest.

Those who complete an associate’s degree with a grade-point average of at least 2.85 are guaranteed admission to GMU, with no application fees. At the college and the university, they are advised on the intricacies of applying for in-state tuition and other crucial financial and academic issues.

The pipeline leaks at every stage. Still, it delivers.

The community college, known as NOVA, supplies GMU with 2,700 transfer students a year. That almost equals the number of freshmen who start each fall at the university. It exceeds total enrollment at the public St. Mary’s College of Maryland, the private Washington and Lee University and many other four-year colleges. Pathway, begun in 2005, accounts for one of every 10 NOVA-GMU transfers, and the share is growing rapidly.

Very few community colleges and universities share a one-to-one connection of this magnitude. Perhaps the largest in the country is in Orlando, where the University of Central Florida accepted 4,700 transfers this school year from Valencia College. Proponents say this kind of cooperation is vital to ensure the nation has a competitive workforce.

“You’ve got to open up,” said UCF President John C. Hitt, arguing that universities must give more students a second or third shot at higher education. “We need millions more graduates.”

NOVA President Robert G. Templin Jr. talks with student nurses Julie Padusi, Christina Saad and Olga Sears at NOVA’s Medical Education Campus in Springfield. (Mary F. Calvert/For The Washington Post)

That means universities must figure out how to reach more students who come from poverty, from immigrant families and from households where no one has a college diploma. Robert G. Templin Jr., NOVA’s president, has fixated on this question for more than a decade.

The former head of an economic development center in Herndon, Templin said he became aware in about 2000 of a mismatch between the region’s high-tech employment needs and its demographics. An immigration surge was driving population growth in Northern Virginia, but there seemed to be no strategy to ensure that the children of immigrants, and others of modest means, would get the advanced credentials needed for jobs in the tech-driven economy. “These folks were largely invisible,” he said.

He resolved when he became NOVA president in 2002 to find a solution.

The chance came in 2004: a lunch with Jack D. Dale, then superintendent of Fairfax schools, and Alan G. Merten, then president of GMU. “I said, ‘If anybody in the region is going to make some progress on this, it should be us,’ ” Templin recalled. He asked them: What would happen if we behaved as one system rather than three separate organizations?

The following year their experiment launched: Two counselors were assigned to 12 schools in Fairfax and Loudoun counties. Their mission was to find promising students who faced significant barriers to entering college. These students would be offered an inside track to GMU, via NOVA.

Pathway drew 340 participants in the first year. Now it has more than 10,000. Pathway has counselors at 55 high schools in several counties and cities, at five NOVA campuses and at GMU. The program runs on $3.8 million a year, with funding from NOVA, school systems, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and other sources, as well as in-kind support from GMU. Results so far are promising: Eighty-eight percent move straight from high school into college; 92 percent who enroll at NOVA stay after the first semester; 83 percent of Pathway transfers to GMU earn a bachelor’s within three years.

The University System of Maryland, citing Pathway as a model, is starting a similar collaboration with Montgomery College and Montgomery County schools.

Pathway students aren’t obliged to attend GMU after they finish at NOVA. Some go to other public universities in Virginia or private Marymount University in Arlington. Others transfer to Howard, Georgetown, George Washington and American universities in the District. One is at Cornell University.

But GMU, the largest public university in Virginia, is a logical destination for students from one of the nation’s largest community colleges. It is nearby and relatively inexpensive. (Annual tuition and fees for Virginians: $9,908.) Its campus culture is global and diverse. It has so many transfer students that new ones blend in. And it is young.

Independent since 1972, Mason is unburdened by conventions that weigh down older colleges and universities. While others in higher education prize their selectivity — which is another way of saying exclusivity — GMU President Angel Cabrera likes to say his ideal is inclusivity. The university has nearly 34,000 students and aims to add several thousand more. Cabrera is bullish on the expansion of transfers to GMU — “It’s fantastic,” he said — and is unconcerned about whether the university is perceived as a commuter or residential school. GMU is both.

All in all, it is a magnet for NOVA students like Ahmed Trabelsi.

The big-bearded son of North African immigrants, Trabelsi, 21, is a graduate of J.E.B. Stuart High School in Fairfax and aims to be the first in his family to get a college diploma. His father is a limousine driver; his mother, a babysitter. One recent afternoon at NOVA’s Annandale campus, Trabelsi attended a forum on how to transfer to GMU. His transcript appears all set for guaranteed admission: no disqualifying D’s or F’s, a GPA of about 3.1. He intends to major in finance.

“When you finish college and start working, start a career, the real world is diverse,” Trabelsi said. He said GMU prepares students for that — “so you don’t have a culture shock when you get out of college.”

NOVA, too, is a young and worldly institution. Founded in 1964, it has more than 51,000 students and awards about 8,000 certificates and degrees a year.Jill Biden, wife of the vice president, teaches English there. Politicians frequently visit to talk up educational opportunity and workforce training. President George W. Bush came three times. President Obama unveiled a proposed budget for the government in his fifth visit in February 2012. “I’ve been here so many times,” Obama joked, “I’m about three credits short of graduation.”

At last year’s NOVA graduation exercise, held in the school’s Patriot Center, Templin invited Cabrera to join him onstage for a show of solidarity. “We shook every single hand,” the GMU president said. There were thousands. Cabrera said he told the graduates: “Welcome to Mason, look forward to working with you.”

Aaron Ford, 17, of T.C. Williams High School and mother Cassandra Ford listen to Arias Reyes speak. (Mary F. Calvert/For The Washington Post)

Arias Reyes dropped out of GMU after transferring from NOVA but eventually reenrolled. (Mary F. Calvert/For The Washington Post)

For Arias Reyes, the welcome to GMU was jarring.

She had regrouped in her senior year at high school after absorbing the blow to her academic ambitions. A counselor had drawn her into Pathway. From fall 2009 through spring 2011, Arias Reyes motored through courses at the NOVA campus in Alexandria near her home. Ineligible for federal Pell grants, she worked at a Rite Aid Pharmacy, a DSW shoe outlet and a Wells Fargo bank to cover tuition and living expenses. Pathway counselors helped ensure she qualified for in-state tuition. (Full-time tuition and fees this year for Virginians at NOVA are about $4,600. The out-of-state rate is about $10,500.) She completed her associate’s degree in liberal arts at NOVA in 2011 and sailed into Mason.

Then the GMU bills came. Despite the in-state discount, Arias Reyes worried about paying for her first semester. She started classes and made the first two of three tuition payments.

She couldn’t make the third. She had to withdraw and forfeit $1,200 in tuition payments. Had she consulted a counselor about her money woes before classes started, Arias Reyes might have learned that she could defer enrollment while saving for Mason. She might have learned, too, about deadlines for no-penalty course withdrawal.

Instead, she was considered a GMU drop-out.

“It was probably the worst point in my life,” she said. “I was so depressed.”

Arias Reyes sought help from a Pathway counselor who told her she could take more NOVA classes while she worked as a full-time bank teller and saved for another try.

She did that. She applied and got in again — this time, for good. Crucially, she became eligible for a substantial tuition reimbursement program at Wells Fargo. Arias Reyes also got married in 2012 to a logistics analyst who works for a military contractor. She just received a two-year green card granting her conditional permanent residence.

Now Arias Reyes is a commuter student, bank teller and substitute teacher for Fairfax schools. She prowls the crowded GMU parking lots in her 16-year-old Honda Civic on Monday nights and Wednesday afternoons, looking for a precious spot so she can get to class. She is majoring in foreign languages, with a concentration in Spanish and a minor in Latin American studies. One of her more demanding classes is a graduate seminar in Spanish on “Don Quixote.” She plans to apply to a master’s program in Spanish at GMU to prepare for a career in teaching.

One Saturday in late February she gave a pep talk at the university to several hundred Pathway students who are about to follow in her footsteps. She told them to ignore those who ridicule community college as “a joke ... like going to 13th grade.”

“My story is a story of a dreamer, a story of struggle, a story of falling down and getting back up,” she told them. “And I hope a story of success.”

Nick Anderson is a Washington Post higher-education writer. His last story for the magazine was on UMUC, the largest online public university in the country.

E-mail us at

For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit WP Magazine.

Follow the Magazine on Twitter.

Like us on Facebook.