The entrance to Patrick & Henry Community College. (Sign hasn't been changed to reflect the new name). Photo by Ben R. Williams.

Last week The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk published a commentary from the president of the Hampton Roads Black Caucus (a local political group, not to be confused with a legislative group) in which he called the state’s community colleges “a failing system” because enrollment is falling while jobs are going unfilled.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office blasted this out as an “in case you missed it” email, so presumably the governor shares these views.

That alone raises an important question: What does the governor believe the solution is?

He hasn’t said and, near as I can tell, neither did op-ed writer Ron Taylor.

This isn’t the first time the governor has made it clear he has concerns about the community college system. As reported earlier by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Youngkin sent an aggressively worded letter to the chair of the state community college board (N.L. Bishop, senior associate dean for diversity, inclusion and student vitality at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine in Roanoke) in which he demanded a role in the hiring of the next community college chancellor.

He didn’t get one. The Republican governor’s intervention did appear to force out the front-runner to succeed Chancellor Glenn DuBois (who is retiring after a record 21 years) – former Secretary of Education Anne Holton, wife of U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia. But when Youngkin then called on the board to restart the hiring process altogether, the board pointedly refused and the next day (in a meeting in Christiansburg) hired Russell Kavalhuna, president of Henry Ford College in Michigan.

Judging by the fact that Youngkin’s office made a point of distributing Taylor’s critical op-ed, it would seem that the governor hasn’t let this go.

All this might seem distant politics – quick question: how many people even know who the current chancellor is, even after all those years in office? – and maybe the politics are distant. However, the policies at stake here very much hit home in Southwest and Southside Virginia. We are, to put things bluntly, the least-educated parts of the state and the most in need of building a new economy. In many places, community colleges are the only institutions of higher learning within any reasonable distance. That means community colleges mean a lot more here than they do someplace else, so if the system is really failing, then that becomes an urgent issue for us.

So, is the community college system failing? I’m not in a position to say. To determine whether an institution is succeeding or failing, we need some metrics, and I don’t know what the metrics are or should be. All I know is that the metrics cited so far aren’t persuasive.

Youngkin, in his initial letter to Bishop, cited how community college enrollment has declined. Taylor repeated those in his op-ed. “From fall 2010 to fall 2020, Virginia’s four-year public colleges increased enrollment by more than 5%. Contrast that with the commonwealth’s community colleges, where enrollment dropped by 44,000 students, nearly 27%, over the same period, according to the State Council of Higher Education of Virginia (SCHEV),” Taylor wrote.

That would seem to be a metric that indicates failure – except it’s not. As I pointed out in an earlier column, Virginia’s community college enrollment decline isn’t unique. Community college enrollment is declining all across the United States – ever since 2010. One big reason it’s declining is simply demographic: There are fewer college-age students out there. The number of births in the United States peaked in 1990 at 4,179,000, declined to 3,882,000 in 1997 and didn’t top the 1990 high again until 2006 and 2007, when births rose to 4,270,000 and 4,320,000. Since then they’ve been going back down again. In 2020, they dropped to 3,605,201, the lowest figure since 1979. While we don’t know a formal birth count for 2021 yet, we do know the Census Bureau has reported that the birth rate has gone down yet again. The reality is: The pool of potential community college students is down and is going to go down even further as the years go on, so measuring enrollment doesn’t seem the best measure of success.

It’s interesting that enrollment at four-year schools went up while community college enrollment went down, except that doesn’t quite seem an apples-to-apples comparison. Some community college students go on to four-year schools, some don’t – they’re there for career and technical programs – so this feels more like a Venn diagram. There’s also the possibility that four-year schools, keen to keep their enrollments up, took in some students that maybe didn’t belong there. Maybe some of those students would have been better served by a career and technical program than an academic program.

So what, then, should the measures be?

I think Youngkin – and the op-ed writer – have stumbled upon a good one: the number of job vacancies in the state (300,000, Youngkin says). Now, that’s influenced by demographics, too – baby boomers are retiring and there may simply not be enough people in succeeding generations to fill all those jobs. I’ll have more to say about that in a future column. Still, the existence of those vacancies is a real number and we do look to the community college system (in part) to help train people for those jobs. That means we’re going to have to get people into the community college system who clearly aren’t in it now – and who may not even be thinking about it. That becomes a challenge that may take more than a new chancellor to fix.

A study last year by the Washington-based think tank Education Reform Now found that Virginia “provides 68% more in state funding to public four-year colleges than it does to two-year community colleges per full-time equivalent student” – even though those two-year schools have less “institutional wealth” (i.e, endowments) and serve students from distinctly less affluent backgrounds.

That same report also found that Virginia ranked 44th in the nation “in state funding for two-year colleges per full-time equivalent student.”

Now, money’s not the solution to everything, but we ought to ask if Virginia’s funding of higher education is out of whack. It would seem from those numbers that maybe Virginia has been starving the very institutions that we now look to for help. That Education Reform Now report made the case that there’s no consistent way of how different Virginia institutions of higher education are funded – except, perhaps, that the more glamorous ones, and the ones with better-connected alumni, get better funding than the ones that aren’t. (Shocked, I tell you, shocked.) Old Dominion University’s annual State of the Commonwealth report – produced by ODU’s business school and the Dragas Center for Economic Analysis and Policy – said much the same thing. It raised a series of provocative questions that I suspect very few legislators of either party want to address. The ODU report focused on how the state’s colleges are, effectively, economically segregated, with a handful of urban schools (ODU being one of them) and community colleges serving lower-income students while other schools generally don’t.

The ODU report made this case: “If Virginia hopes to skirt destructive class and racial conflicts in the future, then it will be its community colleges and large urban institutions that will have to carry the proverbial ball forward. This does not preclude changes in behavior on the part of other institutions, but most have exhibited only marginal interest in doing so. But what if the Commonwealth of Virginia dispensed state appropriations more visibly based on which institutions are at the forefront of fighting economic inequality? … What if the current batch of remarkably amorphous portions of the Code of Virginia that are supposed to guide Virginia’s colleges and universities were amended to make the restoration of economic mobility an identified higher education priority? What if boards of visitors then began to evaluate and compensate presidents at least partially on the basis of their success in mobilizing their campuses to be part of the emerging solution instead of a recurrent source of the problem? Rather than something new and daring, properly interpreted, these developments would constitute a clear-headed return to once cherished values.”

Of course, we all know that’s not going to happen, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask those questions anyway.

As for community colleges specifically, here’s the one fact that seems to override all others: Community colleges serve a distinctly different pool of students than four-year schools do. Yes, many community college students are on an academic track and later transfer to four-year schools. Good for them. They’ll graduate with less debt. But many others are there for short-term credentials programs. When Youngkin draws a connection between community college enrollment and jobs going unfilled, it’s mostly those programs and those students he has in mind (or should).

Those are also the hardest students to get into the system – and to keep in the system.

The average age of a traditional academic student in the Virginia community college system is 26, so already higher than that of four-year schools. The average age of those in credentials programs is 36.

This is a fundamentally different set of students than a four-year college enrolls, so we can’t bring the same set of policy assumptions to them.

Last week the Federal Reserve Bank in Richmond held a day-long conference on rural economic development. One session dealt with workforce development, with emphasis on community colleges. One of the panelists was Kristin Westover, president of Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap. She – and other panelists – talked about the difficulty of enrolling those students and keeping them enrolled, even on a short-term basis.

Many simply can’t afford to go back to school, even if they want to: Who’s going to pay the rent? Who’s going to pay the child care? Even free tuition doesn’t mean much if someone still has bills to pay. As a result, “they’re stuck in a low-wage cycle,” Westover said, and find it difficult to “upskill” even if they want to.

“When I went to college I was told you have to make college a priority, and they can’t,” Westover said. “They can’t because if they make college a priority, then work becomes not a priority, putting food on the table becomes not a priority, taking care of their family becomes not a priority, and because it [school] can’t be their first priority, we think they don’t want to be engaged.” But that’s not so, she said. Schools need to figure out a way around that, with more flexible scheduling, for instance. If we want more students to go into the community college system, then we’re talking adult students, and we’ve got to make that process a lot easier for them than it is. Reality is messy but our policies must deal with reality as it is, not as we wish it were.

Even when those students do get back into the system, “it only takes one life event to take them out again,” Westover said. A flat tire, a lost babysitter. I was recently at Dabney S. Lancaster Community College in Clifton Forge for an event, and President John Rainone said that most community college students are just $300 away from having to drop out.

Other community college students had such a bad experience in high school that the whole idea of returning to the classroom is a turn-off and schools often don’t make it any easier for them, the panelists said. “Some students are very test-averse and classroom-averse because of what they’ve faced,” said Kim Phinney, co-founder of the Kentucky-based Rural Youth Catalyst Project. She also points out that the average reading skills of “returning students” nationwide are on a fifth- or sixth-grade level. Again, reality is messy. 

Here’s how the situation has been described to me: Imagine someone who used to make $9 an hour. Now, thanks to the pandemic labor disruptions, they’re making $15 an hour. It’s still a dead-end job but we, as a society, are asking them to quit that – with no way to pay the bills – and sit through some math or science classes they didn’t do well in before just so they can qualify for a $20-an-hour job. Even if that $20-an-hour job has more potential, that’s still a hard “ask.” Yet that’s the ask that society is making. The initial burden is on the student. Maybe that’s philosophically how it ought to be but, realistically, is that solving the problem? Sure doesn’t seem so. If Youngkin wants to figure out how community colleges can help train people to fill all those unfilled jobs, he’ll need to deal with some solutions that may challenge his conservative ideology.

Across the country, there’s a growing movement to make community colleges free, on the theory that we’ve historically made K-12 education free because that’s once what the economy demanded, but now the economy really demands a K-14 education. Often it’s conservative states – such as Tennessee – that are taking the lead because business and political leaders there have come to the bottom-line conclusion that that’s what’s necessary to grow their economies. Free tuition doesn’t pay the rent or the child care or put food on the table – some community colleges now operate food banks for their students – but it does do something. Former Gov. Ralph Northam pushed a partial version of this for certain high-demand fields – the G3 program – and public radio station WVTF reports that enrollment in those programs is up 9% while it’s down overall. That doesn’t sound like failing; that sounds like succeeding. Youngkin may want to figure out how to expand those programs. 

And how about this twist: The governments who have done the most to try to make community college more affordable are often conservative rural boards of supervisors who have put up money for scholarship programs. For instance, students from Giles County can qualify for the Access to Community College Education program at New River Community College in return for 100 hours of community service. We can praise counties such as Giles for their forward thinking – and we should – but maybe we should also ask why the state government, which right now is rolling in cash, has effectively forced this policy decision down to local governments? In effect, the cash-rich state is asking cash-poor local governments to help cover education costs. Is that good policy?

I had an interesting email exchange recently with John Williamson, chairman of the board for RGC Resources, better known as Roanoke Gas. No one would ever mistake Williamson for a tax-and-spend liberal (he’s a former Republican member of the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors). However, he suggested that maybe the state should make short-term credentials programs free, while still charging for academic programs. If someone like Williamson is proposing some version of free community college, then maybe the governor should pay attention. Someone should run the numbers: If X number of minimum-wage workers took advantage of such programs and wound up making $Y per hour in a new job, would their higher tax rate cover the cost of the state’s expense? If so, that would be a good investment that even the strictest fiscal hawk should like.

While money can’t solve everything, there are some obstacles that money can solve. That’s one. Here’s another one. Rainone, at Dabney S. Lancaster, said his school’s fastest-growing program is for commercial driver’s licenses – i.e., truck driving. But those programs, much like fast-growing nursing programs, face a bottleneck: They can’t find enough qualified instructors. Why not? Because actual trucking and actual nursing pay more than the instructors get paid, so there’s no incentive for industry professionals to go into teaching. (Megan Schnabel looked at the nursing part of this in an earlier story.)

No chancellor can snap his fingers and instantly raise the pay for those instructors – that may take gubernatorial leadership. Youngkin’s instincts here seem right to me. He sees a problem (unfilled jobs) and he sees a potential vehicle to solve that problem (community colleges). But the details will require more than a sound bite, they will require some serious governance. Just like that unwanted and difficult math test that some returning students face in community college, this may be Youngkin’s math test. Let’s figure out how to help him pass it.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.