Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks in Bristol at the Cardinal News Speaker Series. Photo Credit: Earl Neikirk/Neikirk Image.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks in Bristol at the Cardinal News Speaker Series in October 2022. Photo Credit: Earl Neikirk/Neikirk Image.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin has repeatedly said that he wants all Virginia high school students to graduate with college-level associate degrees that will prepare them for the workforce.

So far, though, he hasn’t said how that will be possible or how much it will cost the commonwealth to basically pay for two years’ worth of college credits for every student in Virginia. Right now, less than 3% of Virginia’s public high school seniors are on track to graduate with a 2-year degree before they leave high school.

Those specifics should be known Dec. 15, when the governor unveils his budget priorities.

“On Dec. 15, in front of the Joint Money committees, I will announce my proposal to move Virginia in the right direction,” Youngkin told an audience on Dec. 2 during his remarks at the Virginia Economic Summit and Forum on International Trade in Richmond.

Later, during that same speech, he reiterated his idea to expand opportunities for students to take what are called dual-enrollment courses — classes that fulfill high school graduation requirements and provide college credits, usually offered through a partnership with a local community college. A student who takes enough dual-enrollment classes can earn a two-year associate degree, which could give them a head start on obtaining a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college or joining the working world.

“Our upcoming budget will prioritize expanding these career pathways for students,” Youngkin told the Richmond gathering, “by launching multiple dual-enrollment acceleration programs in partnership with our community colleges and local schools so that we can get on this path for … more students to earn an industry-recognized credential … to make sure that every student in Virginia graduates with an industry-recognized credential.”

Youngkin first mentioned his idea for universal associate degrees and credentials for high school graduates in October during an appearance in Bristol in October as part of the Cardinal News Speaker Series. 

Youngkin said at the time that associate degrees or other types of work-related credentials would make students “immediately … prepared to go right into life.”

“I believe that we have both the capabilities to expand that extensively,” the governor said. “And there’s no reason why it couldn’t be incorporated into our graduation requirements.”

Doing so will probably be an expensive lift, based on current dual enrollment and community college costs and the overall lack of high school students currently enrolled in college-level classes.

Western Virginia legislators and some regional public-school division leaders contacted for this story deferred comment about the governor’s plan until full details are known.

“The Governor’s proposal would require an investment that we expect would be in his proposed budget,” read a statement from Roanoke City Public Schools sent to Cardinal News, “so the General Assembly session will provide the information needed to inform how RCPS and other school divisions would implement programming to support the requirement.”

Virginia’s dual enrollment system is actually a collection of local programs where college classes and credits are offered at varied costs. Most courses are taught by college-qualified teachers at students’ high schools, and some are taught on campus.

Virginia has no standardized cost per credit hour for dual enrollment classes. Local school divisions negotiate with neighboring community colleges to get reduced tuition for classes taught at high schools, with prices ranging from zero to $64 per credit hour, according to information provided by Jim Babb, interim assistant vice chancellor for strategic communications for Virginia’s Community Colleges. 

In Roanoke, tuition for dual-enrollment classes taken at high schools through Virginia Western Community College is $43 per credit hour. Classes taken on Virginia Western’s campus cost the regular tuition rate of $170.09 per credit hour, according to Elizabeth Wilmer, the college’s vice president of academic and student affairs.

In Montgomery County, dual-enrollment tuition is free for the courses taken through New River Community College. The school division covers dual-enrollment costs, said Carl Pauli, Montgomery County’s director of secondary education.

Whether taking college courses in their high schools or on a college campus, students must bear the full cost of dual enrollment classes because anyone who has not yet graduated from high school is not eligible for state and federal financial aid. Pell Grants, student loans and other common means that students use to pay for college are not available to high schoolers.

Some school divisions offer financial support for low-income students, but otherwise students or their families are on the hook for full amount.

Most Virginia community colleges require around 60 credit hours to earn an associate degree, but that varies depending on the field of study. Engineering and nursing degrees require more credits, Wilmer said.

Considering that most dual-enrollment students take about nine credit hours per semester — about three college classes — most of them won’t graduate with an associate degree even if they take dual-enrollment classes for two years, which is the length of their eligibility in most cases. Some schools will make exceptions for younger students depending on circumstances.

Most students already taking dual-enrollment classes won’t earn enough credits to earn a degree before high school graduation. Nearly 46,000 Virginia students were enrolled in dual-enrollment courses during the 2021-2022 school year, according to Babb, the community colleges’ spokesman. Of those, more than 2,700 — about 6% — earned an associate degree or other credential before they graduated from high school.

Virginia’s public high schools enrolled nearly 94,500 seniors in 2021-2022, according to the Department of Education, which means that less than 3% of them earned an associate degree or credential last year.

Raising that figure to 100% is Youngkin’s goal.

The current system’s varying costs and course offerings are rife with regional and economic inequities, Kristen Westover, president of Mountain Empire Community College in Wise County, wrote in an email to Cardinal News. Students in school divisions in rural areas such as Southwest Virginia might face limited class offerings when compared to more populated and higher-income regions due to lack of qualified teachers.

“Depending on the location, dual-enrollment offerings may be limited to offerings that are supported by the credentials that are held by faculty in each K-12 system, which vary by school and community,” Westover wrote. “Student exposure to dual-enrolment opportunities can often be dependent on what the high school has the capacity to offer the student, not necessarily what the college has to offer the student.”

Community colleges in rural areas, such as Mountain Empire, reimburse local school divisions for dual-enrollment tuition costs at high rates, which strains the colleges’ budgets, Westover wrote.

Plus, she said, not every student is ready to take college-level courses when they are a junior in high school, which is when they would have to begin classes to earn an associate degree. She said students must be treated as individuals, with specific skills and learning abilities.

“Not all high school students are college-ready before high school graduation,” she wrote. “Students who attain associate degrees and other post-secondary credentials in high school must demonstrate college readiness often before they begin as juniors in high school. Not every student is capable of or prepared for this, nor should we expect them to be while still in high school.”

Virginia educators also await a report from the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission later this month, which is expected to address community college budgets, including the lack of standardized dual-enrollment costs across the commonwealth.

JLARC has been “trying to untangle the cost of offering dual enrollment to both the high school and the college,” said Wilmer, Virginia Western’s vice president.

A 2017 JLARC audit was somewhat critical of dual-enrollment programs, finding that some four-year universities refused to accept dual-enrollment credits, citing concerns about the quality of the courses. Therefore, students who took dual-enrollment courses generally did not earn a bachelor’s degree any faster or more cheaply than students who had not taken dual-enrollment classes. In fact, most dual-enrollment students had to take additional classes while pursuing a four-year degree because their credits earned in high school were not accepted.

“The majority of dual enrollment students accumulate more credits than non-dual enrollment students to attain a degree,” the report read.

Rather than try to pay for 60 hours of community college credits for every Virginia student, a cost which seems enormous, Youngkin could opt for other approaches, some educators have speculated. In 2021, Gov. Ralph Northam’s “G3” initiative — “Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back” — expanded community college availability for low-income students by covering college costs for those going into targeted fields, such as health care, technology and other trades. As a tradeoff, students performed community service or some other kind of civic engagement to remain eligible for the program. Youngkin could find similar creative ways to help students earn degrees or credentials.

Those details should be known on Dec. 15. Then, for Youngkin, the real work begins when he takes his proposals to the General Assembly.

“We can do this, but more importantly we must do it,” Youngkin told the crowd of business leaders in Richmond, who applauded that statement.

Ralph Berrier Jr.

Ralph Berrier Jr. is a writer who lives in Roanoke. Contact him at ralph.berrier@gmail.com.