George Mason University, shown, and Northern Virginia Community College will soon expand a credit-transfer compact to more majors. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

When George Mason University launched a bachelor’s program in mechanical engineering two years ago, administrators wanted to try something different. They had seen too many students in the past frustrated by failed attempts to transfer community college credits that did not meet the rigorous standards of the Volgenau School of Engineering.

The solution? GMU and Northern Virginia Community College forged a “compact” that offered aspiring mechanical engineers dual enrollment at both schools. Engineering faculty at the university began developing curriculums with their counterparts at NOVA, while academic advisers at the schools teamed up to guide students.

What started out as a novel way for would-be engineers from NOVA to complete a degree at GMU is turning into a model that could revolutionize the transfer experience. On Tuesday, the two schools will announce a partnership expanding the compact model to other majors next fall.

The partnership aims to create a seamless transition for NOVA students to the public university through a single point of entry for admissions, financial aid and advising. That will mean taking steps to ensure that every class counts and that students have a clear path to graduation.

“The way we have the biggest impact is how we work together to address more opportunities for our students and more opportunities for our region,” GMU President Ángel Cabrera said.

Across the country, a growing number of public universities and community colleges are partnering to remove obstacles that prevent students at two-year institutions from completing bachelor’s degrees. Many schools, including GMU and NOVA, have long-standing transfer agreements, but those policies are no guarantee of a smooth transition.

A recent study of students who entered community college in 2007 found that only 42 percent of those who transferred earned a bachelor’s degree within six years of starting school. The results also varied by state and income level, with just a third of low-income community college students earning four-year degrees.

“The difficulty across the country is how credits transfer and apply,” said Michelle Blackwell, who manages the transfer initiative at the nonprofit National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which helped produce the study. Credits left by the wayside mean additional coursework and costs that could turn a four-year degree into a five- or six-year journey.

Tennessee, North Carolina and Texas are among several states where two- and four-year public colleges are using innovative strategies to get students through the pipeline. Some schools, such as New York’s Niagara County Community College and Buffalo State University of New York, offer dual admission. The University of California system, meanwhile, has “guided pathways” that chart the sequence of courses needed to transfer.

“Developing guided pathways, which is what NOVA and GMU is doing, is critical for helping students in the advising process and the transition into the four-year process,” Blackwell said.

Getting in the door is only the first step, and students can stumble without the right academic support or social preparation.

For Daniel Howe, 22, there were no hiccups in transferring his credits from NOVA or registering for the classes he needed to complete a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering at GMU. Yet adjusting to a new campus and workload was challenging, he said. Howe, who entered the university before the compact took shape, said he imagines things would have been different if the model had been in place.

“Being able to take a couple of classes at Mason while still at NOVA would have given me a smoother introduction to Mason,” said Howe, who graduates this year. “It’s not like it ruined my time, but that would have made things a little easier.”

At GMU, Howe said, he appreciated that faculty and administrators welcomed him when he arrived from NOVA two years ago. People at the university were accustomed to transfer students from the community college and offered a lot of support, he said.

Fifty-six percent of NOVA graduates go on to GMU, where they have comprised nearly half of the graduating class for the past five years. The schools estimate that students save what would be a full year of tuition and fees at GMU by starting at NOVA and transferring. Mason, with 35,000 students, is the largest public university in Virginia, and NOVA, with 70,000 students, is the largest two-year college.

Keeping students on track has academic and economic benefits. Spending two years at a community college, where the annual sticker price for tuition is on average $3,500, is supposed to be a sound way to save on a bachelor’s degree. But the total cost soars when students take longer to graduate.

“Sometimes students will transfer and their credits will count as electives, and they have to repeat courses. And that’s a hugely expensive thing for them as well as the state,” said Scott Ralls, president of NOVA. “By thinking creatively, not only can we save by pulling together [as institutions], but we can even drive down costs over time.”

The most significant cost of the partnership will be hiring more advisers, said Michelle Marks, GMU vice president for academic innovation and new ventures. She said the schools are looking to foundations, the business community and the state legislature for the initial investment of $500,000 to $1 million.

Those dollars will also help create a system to populate one transcript for both schools and create a common system for registration and financial aid. For now, the schools are considering business, science, technology and other engineering majors for the rollout, with plans to add five degree programs every year.

The interest in science and technology fields is rooted in regional workforce demands, Cabrera said. Northern Virginia has a thriving health services sector, in addition to government contracting and cybersecurity.

“It’s a knowledge-based economy,” said Stephen Fuller, a GMU economist. “We’re dependent on making more of who we have here, because competition is stiff for attracting already-prepared workers. The pressure is on to make better use of our colleges.”

The commitment between the schools arrives as GMU has climbed into an elite group of research-focused universities. But Cabrera said the university remains focused on inclusion, not on chasing prestige.

Cabrera said NOVA is an essential partner: “We exist to serve our community, and we do that by being a top-notch research university and by providing access to the broadest segment of our population. We cannot do the second part without these guys.”

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