A Pathway to Success for At-Risk Students

By Dennis Pierce

Starting in high school, Northern Virginia Community College helps students see that a four-year degree is possible.

Since 2005, the Pathway to the Baccalaureate program has helped at-risk students in Northern Virginia through their last year or two of high school, to an associate’s degree from Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), and then on to a baccalaureate program at George Mason University or other four-year institution.

Students in the program benefit from wraparound support services throughout the process. This high-touch program appears to be working.

On the whole, the 2,500 high school seniors admitted each year into the Pathway to the Baccalaureate program exceed national averages for on-time high school completion, transition to college, term-to-term completion, completion of an associate’s degree and completion of a four-year degree, says Kerin Hilker-Balkissoon, director of Pathway to the Baccalaureate.

More specifically, about 90 percent of program participants enroll at NOVA, and the retention rate of these students from their first to second semester is 90 percent. Of the students who transfer to Mason, about 83 percent complete their bachelor’s degree within three years.

Why and how the program started

During the 2003–04 school year, NOVA’s president at the time, Robert Templin, realized that a subset of the population in Northern Virginia who were traditionally underserved — first-generation college students, minority and immigrant students, students with disabilities — were growing at a much faster rate than the population as a whole, says Hilker-Balkissoon.

“Over time, the number of college completers in our region would drop if we did not invest in interventions that would identify these students early on and provide them with comprehensive systems of support into and through our college and on to the next level,” she says.

Templin, who has since retired, contacted the leaders of Mason and the two largest Northern Virginia school districts. They formed a task force, and 18 months later they had a charter for the Pathways to the Baccalaureate program.

“We work very closely with our partners,” Hilker-Balkissoon says. “These aren’t just partnerships on paper. They are really strategic, in-depth relationships with multiple individuals.”

The transition to NOVA and beyond

In the participating 60 local high schools, NOVA counselors build relationships with high school staff and encourage at-risk students to apply to the program. In most high schools, counselors help seniors apply to NOVA, complete their financial-aid paperwork, and even register for classes right from the high school campus.

In 12 high-need high schools, however, the program targets students as early as their sophomore year, providing academic support to decrease the likelihood that students will need remedial services in college.

The intensive counseling — which Hilker-Balkissoon calls “high-touch case-management support” — continues as students transition to NOVA. The college develops an individual transition plan for each student and helps them apply for any public benefits for which they are eligible. As NOVA freshmen, the students take an eight-week college-success course with embedded peer mentors.

“Meeting with every student weekly for the first eight weeks allows us to identify students who aren’t coming to class and gives us an opportunity to address any issues early on in their college career,” Hilker-Balkissoon says. “We can connect them with tutoring, resources or whatever they need.”

Every participating student has a retention counselor while at NOVA. Students must fulfill a service learning requirement, and they have to attend at least one activity or join a campus organization each semester.

“Data show students who are engaged in activities on campus are much more likely to be successful,” Hilker-Balkissoon explains. In addition, the college provides several opportunities for the students to bond, such as bowling nights or “advice for a slice” gatherings, in which students can get free pizza if they show up and ask a counselor a question.

Counselors also work with students to identify their career goals, make sure they have the courses they’ll need to reach these goals, and help them apply to Mason or another four-year institution. Students transferring to Mason are handed off to a university adviser who meets with them regularly until they complete their bachelor’s degree.

For a program like this to work, “there has to be full alignment among all partners,” Hilker-Balkissoon says. “They all have to have a common vision and a commitment to providing the necessary resources to support the program.”

Dennis Pierce

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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