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Effort to Encourage Va. Students to Earn H.S., College Degrees Moving Forward

The Virginia community college effort to increase the number of rural residents earning high school and college degrees recently received a $2 million boost.

Michael A. Smith and Valley Proteins, Inc., the family-owned company Smith operates with his brother, each donated $1 million to support the Rural Virginia Horseshoe Initiative. 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.

I first reported in June on this effort, which is a partnership between 14 Virginia community colleges, their foundations, and the Virginia Foundation for Community College Education.

The 10-year project is intended to help at-risk foster youth, adults who failed to finish high school and need workforce training, and middle-class families who don't think they can afford college.

Although the state ranks in the top 10 for higher education attainment, it ranks 19th from the bottom in its percentage of the population with at least a high school equivalency. College-enrollment and -completion rates for rural communities lag the national average.

The combined $2 million gift is among the largest made to a foundation to support the state's community colleges, and it's the lead gift for the horseshoe initiative, according to the Virginia Foundation for Community College Education.

Jeffrey Kraus, assistant vice chancellor for public relations for Virginia's Community Colleges, said the gift is significant not only for its obvious philanthropic value but "because it comes from a third-generation family-owned business in the horseshoe region, where it has always been."

"It's hard to think of a bigger vote of confidence in this effort," he said.

The initiative still is in its planning phase, and it's slated to begin in July 2014. Organizers have asked the state for nearly $2 million in next year's budget, but they probably won't know until late this spring whether that will happen. The governor will announce his budget proposal later this month, and the General Assembly will make its decision during the 2014 session. Colleges also will be asked to raise money for the program.

One of the foundation's ideas is to expand full-time career coaches in high schools to help students with their postsecondary education search and financial questions. They also want to expand a program that helps young people aging out of the foster-care system, as well as provide $1,000 scholarships to adults pursuing a postsecondary credential at their nearest community college.

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