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Richard Ernst, who led Northern Virginia Community College for 30 years, dies at 86

Richard J. Ernst is shown in June 1998, shortly before he retired after 30 years as president Northern Virginia Community College. (Shawn Thew/The Washington Post)

Richard J. Ernst, who served 30 years as president of Northern Virginia Community College, building the two-year school into Virginia’s largest institution of higher education, died Aug. 15 at a retirement facility in Springfield, Va. He was 86.

The cause was listed as acute coronary syndrome, said a daughter, Maribeth Ernst Luftglass.

Dr. Ernst joined Northern Virginia Community College (sometimes called NOVA) in 1968, four years after it was founded. The school had just opened the doors of its first campus, in Annandale, after being housed in an old warehouse at Baileys Crossroads. About 4,000 students were enrolled.

As the population of Northern Virginia surged during the 1970s and 1980s, the college grew with it. By the time Dr. Ernst retired in 1998, NOVA had expanded to five campuses, with a sixth in the planning stages.

About 65,000 students were enrolled in classes for academic credit, making NOVA the second-largest community college in the country, after Miami Dade College in Florida — a rank it still holds.

“He’s taken [NOVA] from a start-up college to the second-largest community college in the country,” Northern Virginia business leader Edward H. Bersoff said of Dr. Ernst in a 1998 Washington Post interview. “And he’s certainly put this community on the map with respect to the whole community college movement.”

Before the growth of two-year community colleges, a college education was traditionally seen as a four-year commitment at a residential campus, often requiring considerable expense. Community colleges, or junior colleges as many were once known, were designed to offer educational opportunities to working adults, recent immigrants and people with modest incomes.

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“We have a drop-in, drop-out, drop-in, drop-out kind of program,” Dr. Ernst told The Post in 1977.

NOVA offered a two-year associate degree at campuses in Annandale, Alexandria, Sterling, Manassas and Woodbridge. (A medical education campus opened in Springfield in 2003.) With classes in standard academic subjects such as English literature, history and mathematics, many students took coursework that could be applied toward a bachelor’s degree at four-year institutions. Others studied technical fields, including auto repair, emergency medical training and heating and air conditioning.

Older adults often enrolled in noncredit courses, addressing topics such as home-buying, disco dancing and the rudiments of hockey.

With much of NOVA’s funding coming from state appropriations, Dr. Ernst faced a continual challenge each year from tightfisted legislators. In 1983, when the Virginia legislature reduced state spending on higher education by 4.6 percent, NOVA’s budget was cut by $3.7 million, forcing Dr. Ernst to eliminate 34 full-time and 12 part-time jobs at the college.

“We have reached the level where we cannot continue serving more and more people with fewer resources,” he said at the time. “At some point, something’s got to give in terms of providing adequate equipment and resources.”

During robust economic times, enrollment often fell as would-be students found full-time jobs. When the economy contracted, NOVA and other community colleges gained students hoping to obtain more marketable skills.

In 1985, during a booming national economy, NOVA’s enrollment dropped by 8 percent, causing Dr. Ernst to lay off 55 faculty members.

“We did far better than some California and Florida community colleges who suffered greater staff reductions than us,” he said at the time. “Northern Virginia’s enrollment is leveling out and I am quite confident about our future.”

Richard James Ernst was born Feb. 3, 1933, in Niagara, Wis. His father worked at a paper mill, his mother was a homemaker.

Dr. Ernst was 16 when his family moved to Largo, Fla., where he finished high school. He graduated in 1956 from the University of Florida, from which he received a master’s degree in education in 1959. He served in the Army from 1956 to 1958.

He began his education career as a high school mathematics teacher and later served as an instructor, administrator and dean of academic affairs at St. Petersburg Junior College in Florida. He received a doctorate in education from Florida State University in 1965.

After becoming NOVA’s president, Dr. Ernst lived near the college’s Annandale campus for many years. He was a member of Providence Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, Va.

His wife of 52 years, the former Elizabeth “Betty” McGeachy, died in 2012. Survivors include three children, Maribeth Ernst Luftglass, an assistant superintendent in the Fairfax County Public Schools, of Fairfax County, Terrie McClure of Manassas, Va., and Richard James Ernst Jr. of Fredericksburg, Va.; and eight grandchildren.

In retirement, Dr. Ernst was active in the Senior Olympics, winning many regional and national medals in track-and-field and basketball. As president of NOVA, Dr. Ernst often took part in campus pickup games because, he said, “students love to play against the president.”

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