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Va. Community Colleges Spearhead Effort to Help Rural Students Go to College

Rural Virginia community colleges are banding together in a new project that aims to increase the number of rural residents earning high school degrees and postsecondary education.

The Rural Virginia Horseshoe Initiative is a joint effort between the Virginia Foundation for Community College Education and seven pilot community colleges. The term "horseshoe" refers to the shape made by the state's rural regions; the horseshoe begins on the Eastern Shore, stretches across to Southwest Virginia and goes up the Shenandoah Valley.

There's a significant educational disparity between the horseshoe and the rest of the state. If that rural region were a state, it would be tied for 50th in terms of its percentage of residents holding at least a bachelor's degree (19 percent). If the rest of the nonhorseshoe region were a state, it would be ranked No. 2 with more than 38 percent of its residents achieving at that level, according to the foundation. That gap has implications for rural residents' future health, poverty, and incarceration.

Nationally, college enrollment and attainment are significant problems for rural communities. About 31 percent of 18- to-24-year-olds in rural areas were enrolled in higher education in 2009, compared with the national average of 41.7 percent. And only 17 percent of rural adults 25 or older have a college degree, which is about half the percentage of urban adults.

The foundation says the state's community college system is the only entity with the capability, capacity ,and track record to address the problem, and it wants to increase the number of rural citizens who graduate with at least a career certificate or two-year degree.

One of the foundation's ideas is to fund full-time career coaches in high schools across rural Virginia. These coaches each would cover two high schools. The effort would expand the state's existing Career Coach and College Access Initiative, which places part-time coaches in high schools to help students with their postsecondary education search and to share financial aid information.

Figures show these part-time coaches have increased students' college-enrollment rates an average of 8 percent, according to the foundation. The Patrick County Education Foundation funded two full-time coaches during the past 10 years. In 2002, nearly 30 percent of Patrick County High School seniors had no plans at graduation. By 2011, all had plans, with 83 percent of students saying they planned to continue their education. The percentage of students who said they wanted to go to a community college jumped from 27.8 percent in 2002 to over 45 percent.

The foundation also wants to give a $1,000 credit to those who earn a GED to help pay college costs not covered by financial aid.

The foundation is asking for $2.1 million from the state in the next biennial budget, which begins July 1, 2014. These funds would be matched and managed by the foundation to create an initial fund of $4.2 million. The seven pilot colleges would need to match that amount with private money to receive any funds. Those colleges include: Eastern Shore, Paul D. Camp, Patrick Henry, Virginia Highlands, Mountain Empire, Southwest Virginia, and Blue Ridge Community Colleges.

A recent opinion piece by Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer was published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in support of the project. It will be interesting to see whether lawmakers and the governor get behind the concept, too.

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