Sunday, November 20, 2011

Lagging on college access

Elizabeth Strother

Recent columns

From the RoundTable blog

Why doesn't Roanoke County participate in Virginia Western's innovative Community College Access Program?

It's a boon for financially stranded middle-class students, too well off to qualify for much, if any, federal financial aid, but not so wealthy that they can afford four years at the state's pricey semi-public institutions of higher learning.

CCAP will cover the cost of tuition for two years at Virginia Western for graduates of Salem and Roanoke city public schools who meet a handful of criteria. Franklin County also participates.

But not Roanoke County. Why?

I put the question last week to Lorraine Lange, the county's superintendent of schools — catching up with her by phone in Charlottesville, where she was attending a state board meeting for the Virginia Community College System.

"Here I am, at a scholarship reception for one of my students who got a scholarship from Virginia Western," she said with a laugh.

"We send a lot of students, and our [county education] foundation gives a lot of scholarships to send students to Virginia Western." Lange is the chairwoman of the college's local advisory board — in other words, a community college booster.

But about CCAP ...

"Everybody thinks it's a good thing, there's no doubt about it," she said.


"It's a matter of balancing the budget."

CCAP is a private/public partnership — correction: "a series of private/public partnerships formed in each school district throughout Virginia Western's service region," according to the college website. That is the goal its Educational Foundation is working toward, anyway, to help students overcome financial barriers, real or perceived, to getting a college education.

The public component is built on a base of federal financial aid that localities supplement where needed with tax dollars —  ideally, split between the local government and school division. Private funds come from businesses, foundations and individual donors.

Students who want to participate must apply for federal financial aid. In the city of Roanoke, School Board Chairman David Carson said, most who apply qualify; CCAP covers the balance of the cost for students who qualify for only partial aid, full tuition for those who qualify for no aid at all.

"They're going to get it paid for either way."

The city has far more low-income students than the county, though.With fewer students likely to get federal aid, the county must worry that it will have to cover a larger share of the bill. And the county differs from participating localities in other ways, too, Lange noted.

Salem, which served as the pilot for CCAP, has only one high school. Roanoke County has five.

Franklin County's local share comes mainly from its purchase of Smith Farm, property on Smith Mountain Lake bequeathed to the state community college system in 1979. The land was sold last year to the county for $1million, to be paid out over 10 years, with proceeds to go to Virginia Western scholarships for its high school graduates. The Virginia Tobacco Commission chipped in a $50,000 grant this month.

"Roanoke County would be by far the largest [school district], with five public high schools," Virginia Western's coordinator for resource development, Erik Williams, acknowledged. "It would cost the most." Its Educational Foundation is in the midst of a major gifts campaign to draw all localities in Virginia Western's service area into the program, expanding it into Roanoke, Botetourt and Craig counties.

Williams said the foundation figures a Roanoke County program would need $2.5million from all sources over five years. That would translate into $250,000 a year for the municipal portion — theoretically, half from the local government, half from the schools. "But every locality's funding formula is different."

Foundation forces sound cautiously optimistic about its prospects in the county.

Virginia Western President Robert Sandel said they've had discussions with Lange, with County Administrator Clay Goodman, and some supervisors and school board members.

"They clearly understand what CCAP is about and see that they're beginning to get surrounded by counties and cities that are onboard," Sandel said.

"We know of a handful of key industries [in the county] that see the real value of CCAP.

"Key for us is Clay Goodman," he added. "I think he sees an opportunity to do an entry-level contribution to get the door open."

That, of course, would have been before state lawmakers heard the governor's recent, bleak assessment of Virginia's economic outlook going into budget-writing season.

"We do have concerns about the status of the state budget and its impacts on our budget revenues," Goodman said last week. Still, he said, "I think Dr. Lange and I will sit down at the beginning of the budget year and try to get this."

It would be a new program, one the supervisors haven't discussed yet as a board, he pointed out. So, no promises. "But the board has supported education. ... I'm sure this is a topic that will be discussed because of the importance to the county and to the region."

And increasingly, to the middle class.

"We have more and more students going two years there, then doing the last two years at a four-year college," Lange said last week. "Across Virginia, I think, there's a growing need as more and more middle class have lost jobs."

The state tightens its belt. The county tightens its belt. Middle-class Virginians, meanwhile, are being priced out of college for their kids. If the county wants economic development and it hopes for a next-gen middle class, CCAP is the best investment it can make.

Strother is on the editorial board of The Roanoke Times.

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