Ameia Moore-Stone is one of 129 students pursuing a bachelor’s degree through George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College’s new ADVANCE program.

Acceptance into George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College’s ADVANCE program paid early dividends for Ameia Moore-Stone.

A Washington, D.C., native with a young son, Moore-Stone moved to Virginia to attend community college in the hopes of eventually earning a bachelor’s degree, but the combined stresses of pursuing her education, holding down a full-time job, and being a mother proved to be too overwhelming.

She left school but fully intended to return and complete her degree when she could better handle the mental and financial demands of college.

A lifesaver appeared in the form of an email to her NOVA inbox.

It was a notice soliciting applications for ADVANCE, a new partnership between GMU and NOVA designed to make it easier for community college students to obtain a four-year degree.

Moore-Stone applied and was accepted, along with 128 other students who make up the program’s initial fall class.

In addition to more closely aligning their curricula and course requirements, GMU and NOVA are supporting ADVANCE students by pairing them with success coaches who will advise them throughout their higher education career.

Upon meeting with her success coach for the first time, Moore-Stone learned that she was not only enrolled in the wrong biology class, but she had an outdated curriculum and needed to take additional business courses to transfer to GMU in order to get the business administration degree she wanted.

“Having that tailored assistance with my success coach, it was very, very helpful,” Moore-Stone said. “I’m already reaping the benefits of being part of the ADVANCE program.”

Mason and NOVA administrators hope to see many more students join Moore-Stone in taking advantage of their partnership.

Formally launched in a ceremony at GMU’s Center for the Arts in Fairfax on Oct. 29, the ADVANCE program currently has 129 students across 21 majors with an additional 200 students expected to enroll for the spring semester.

George Mason projects that the program will have almost 7,000 students by 2030.

“This is not just a pilot. This is a sustainable solution that is going to change the lives of thousands of students,” GMU President Ángel Cabrera said.

Mason and NOVA’s leaders started collaborating on ADVANCE more than a year ago as they recognized the challenges that face students looking to transfer from one institution to the other.

With more than 75,000 students across six campuses, NOVA is the largest public education institution in Virginia and the second-largest community college in the country. More than 3,000 NOVA students transfer to George Mason every year, making the transfer relationship between the two schools the largest in the Commonwealth.

According to NOVA President Scott Ralls, the vast majority – roughly 80 percent – of students at the community college plan to transfer to a four-year school, but only about 20 percent of those people ultimately get a bachelor’s degree.

That is a slight improvement from the national rate.

Nationally, about 80 percent of the 1.7 million new students who enroll in community college annually plan to get a bachelor’s degree or higher, but based on data from the fall 2007 class, only 33 percent of them went on to a four-year school and only 14 percent obtained a bachelor’s degree within six years, according to a report on transfer student outcomes from The Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program.

Published on Dec. 13, 2017, the report found that traditionally underrepresented students, including those from low-income backgrounds and racial minorities, are more likely to begin their higher education careers at a community college but less likely to find success transferring.

19.6 percent of higher-income transfer students complete bachelor’s degrees compared to 9 percent of low-income students, while the rate of transfer students who obtain bachelor’s degrees breaks down by 19 percent for white students, 11 percent for Hispanic students, and 9 percent for black students.

In addition to the financial and logistical obstacles that make higher education inaccessible or difficult for many, transfer students must navigate confusing bureaucracies as they make their way from one school to another, often with limited assistance and resources that results in credits lost and money and time wasted.

“It’s never a deliberate disconnect,” Ralls said of the gaps between community colleges and four-year universities. “…Too often, we think within our own institutional boundaries, so what we did is we stepped outside of those institutional boundaries and thought about it more from a student’s perspective.”

ADVANCE aims to eliminate the challenges that come with transferring schools.

GMU and NOVA faculty worked together to better coordinate their curricula so that all of the credits a student earns while at community college will transfer to the university. Along with a success coach, students will also have a single point of admission and financial aid, and they will get an identification card that allows them to access both Mason and NOVA facilities.

According to NOVA admissions, ADVANCE is open to students with a minimum 2.00 cumulative grade point average and no more than 30 credit hours at the time of their enrollment.

The partnership offers 20 different degree programs, ranging from accounting, biology, and computer engineering to communication, psychology, and nursing.

In addition to helping students obtain a degree, NOVA and GMU hope that ADVANCE will produce a pipeline of skilled talent that will be able to contribute to an increasingly white-collar, technology-dependent workforce as soon as possible.

The technology companies Northrop Grumman and Micron Technology have already pledged to support the partnership with more businesses expected to follow suit.

A gift from the Northrop Grumman Foundation will be used to establish a scholarship fund for ADVANCE students pursuing science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. The Micron Foundation will fund stipends and coaching support for NOVA engineering students transferring to Mason and for ADVANCE outreach to local high schools.

“In our globalized and competitive workforce, this program is more important now more than ever,” Northrop Grumman corporate vice president and president of enterprise services Shawn Purvis said. “There are far more high-tech positions to be filled than skilled workers to fill them, but more collaboration between business, government, and academia is essential. The program we celebrate today is exactly the kind of progress our region calls out for.”

The overall goal of ADVANCE is to expand access to higher education, particularly for first-generation, low-income, working, and other disadvantaged students.

Ralls describes the mindset of NOVA’s partnership with GMU as one of “inclusive excellence,” bucking the traditional association of quality with exclusivity that pervades academia.

The Aspen Institute vice president Josh Wyner says the approach used by ADVANCE shows promise, highlighting its prioritization of student success, establishment of clear pathways for its degree programs, and use of advising tailored specifically for transfer students.

“Good transfer programs should not depend on where a student lives, so as much as I’m delighted with what’s being created here, until this kind of model is proven and taken nationally, we can’t rest,” Wyner said. “Every community college student in this country should have a clear path for a bachelor’s degree if they want one.”

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