Community Colleges Provide A Solid Start In Rural Virginia

By Amie Knowles

April 29, 2022

There are a variety of perks to staying close to home for a couple of years.

MARTINSVILLE— Did you know that over the past few years, the majority of American high school graduates went straight to college? According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), approximately 66% of recent high school graduates sought immediate higher education in 2019, compared to 62% and 61% in the respective pandemic years of 2020 and 2021.

As for the percentage of recent high school graduates enrolled in higher education, the Education Data Initiative found that approximately 21% enrolled in a two-year college, compared to around 44% who enrolled in a four-year program. Looking at all enrolled college students, 14 million or 71.5% of all college students attend four-year institutions, compared to over 5 million or 28.5% who attended a two-year institution.

Of the 5 million in community college, many chose a local school in Virginia. According to Virginia’s Community Colleges (VCCS), 46% of commonwealth undergraduates are enrolled in community college and 43% of bachelor degree recipients have some community college experience. Nearly 219,000 students attended a VCCS school in the 2019-20 school year.

There are certain perks to staying close to home for a couple of years. First, tuition. Compared to a four-year public school with an average yearly tuition price of nearly $13,700, an average year at a Virginia community college costs just over $4,600. If a student chose to explore a four-year degree after attending a Virginia community college, more than 30 public and private four-year commonwealth colleges have Guaranteed Admissions Agreements with VCCS.

Opportunities for students not seeking a degree, but rather a workforce credential or certificate, also may benefit from a community college education. In Virginia alone, VCCS reported that more than 37,000 students received workforce training or community education, and 948 employers were served through workforce programs at Virginia’s Community Colleges. 

Dogwood reached out to community colleges that served students in Southwest and Southside Virginia and learned more about the educational advantages — and affordability options — unique to those areas. 

Moving Forward In Martinsville 

Would you believe it if someone told you that students in two Virginia school districts could attend community college free of charge for the next 13 years? Well, it’s true! 

Last fall The Harvest Foundation, a Martinsville-based nonprofit organization, announced a $10.3 million grant to Patrick & Henry Community College (P&HCC). The money supports the SEED Fund, which ensures the availability of a no-cost college education to every high school graduate in the Martinsville-Henry County area. Evidence from a three-year pilot program found that SEED students completed college at a rate double the national average for community college students.

Amanda Broome, P&HCC public relations specialist, called the SEED Fund an “enormous blessing” for local school graduates, noting that “while the student debt crisis grows nationally, as more and more students taken on thousands of dollars in debt that will take years and years to pay off, our local students won’t need to borrow a penny to pursue their associate degree or credential.”

The school also offers traditional scholarships through its foundation, as well as state-funded and federal opportunities for eligible students. 

In addition to making college more affordable, P&HCC also offers programs that specifically fit the needs of the labor market in the Martinsville community. The school takes an active role in economic development and employer recruitment by talking with locally established businesses and businesses looking to move to the area, as well as offering employers training opportunities for their future staff.

“We regularly meet with local employers to plan programming that will meet employers’ needs and properly prepare students for the jobs that will be available when they graduate,” Broome said. “Currently, we know that careers in the Knowledge Economy, Industry 4.0, welding, advanced technology, and healthcare are in high demand locally.”

Broome likened the college working with the local economic development scene to a “win-win situation for everyone,” saying: “Employers can get the skilled workforce they need, students can get trained for well-paying jobs that they know will be waiting for them, and the region will benefit from a new business moving in.”

Developing In Danville 

“In the more than 50 years of service to our community, [Danville Community College (DCC)] has produced thousands of graduates who have gone on to work in nearly every imaginable industry, nation-wide,” said Faith O’Neil, DCC’s director of public relations and marketing. “Our current students can look to these successes with the knowledge that they are receiving a high-quality education that will ultimately take them wherever they wish to go.”

Located in Danville, the community college educated more than 3,300 students in 2020-21, with hundreds attending from more than 40 cities and counties throughout the commonwealth, including rural areas like Bath County, Smyth County, Dickinson County, Patrick County, Mecklenburg County, and beyond. More than 10% of students were first generation college students.

O’Neil explained that community college is important for a variety of reasons, including the cost to attend compared to a four-year university, open admission policies that make enrolling easy regardless of previous academic records, and even helping with non-academic barriers like food insecurity, housing insecurity, childcare, and mental health services. 

DCC also aids the local job market by offering degrees, certificates, and credentials that are unique to the needs of the area.

“DCC is very flexible as it relates to our local job market’s needs. When an industry or employer needs training for their incoming or existing employees, DCC can respond quickly and partner with these industries to provide tailor-made training,” O’Neil said. “A great example of this is our recent partnership with Tyson Foods, and the Industrial Maintenance Training DCC has developed to support hiring at their new processing plant coming to Danville in 2023.” 

For students looking to attend college without breaking the bank, DCC works toward keeping tuition rates low, offering support in obtaining federal financial aid, and providing a robust scholarship program. O’Neil noted that many students attend the school with no out-of-pocket expense.

Success In The Southside

Southside Virginia Community College (SVCC) doesn’t just have one main campus location to fit its students needs — it has two. The community college has one location near Alberta in Brunswick County called the Christanna Campus and another outside of Keysville in Charlotte County called the John H. Daniel Campus. Additionally, SVCC hosts five centers located in Blackstone, Chase City, Emporia, South Boston, and South Hill. 

With the variety of on-site offerings scattered throughout the region, Jamie Jones, SVCC director of communications and assistant advancement officer, noted that SVCC aims to help with access to higher education. 

“At Southside Virginia Community College, we work hard to stay true to our mission that everyone should be given an opportunity to acquire an educational foundation that develops and extends their skills and knowledge. Every day we strive to meet this mission by helping students start a path to success, whether that’s the path of transferring to a four-year university or the path of gaining job skills in one of our Fast Forward Workforce programs,” Jones said in part.

There are a variety of needs that SVCC helps to fill in the community. One is the nursing shortage. The nursing program at SVCC regularly ranks as one of the top in Virginia each year, and Jones noted that graduates help fill positions at local hospitals.

“We also offer multiple Fast Forward Workforce programs that help students gain employment including the following: Diesel Technician, Gas Metal Arc Welding, HVAC, Massage Therapy, Medication Assistant, Nurse Aide Training, Phlebotomy, Power Line Worker, Remote Pilot Airman, Solar, and Truck Driving Training,” Jones said. 

The college’s financial aid department works to get the funding students need, Jones noted. However, for the students that don’t qualify for financial aid, the SVCC Foundation raises money each year. The funds raised go toward scholarships to help support students.

A Solid Start

Nationally, federal data researched by the Community College Research Center indicated that over 7 million students attended a two-year college during the 2019-20 school year. 

According to the three community colleges Dogwood interviewed, there are a multitude of reasons students chose to “get their start” locally:

  • P&HCC: “Everyone has their own reasons, I think. But the three biggest things I see most often are: the support, the savings, and the opportunities,” Broome said.
  • DCC: “Community college is a great place to ‘get a start’ because students receive a low cost, high-quality education that offers small class sizes, hands-on training, wrap-around services, and a hometown atmosphere that may be lacking at larger institutions,” O’Neil said. 
  • SVCC: “The money saved is tremendous, as well as the small class sizes. At SVCC, you are not just a number, you are family. We like to say: ‘Panther Pride, Catch It!’” Jones said, noting that the school’s mascot is a panther.
  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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