Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury

A program to keep community college students on track for a smooth transfer to four-year schools should be ready by the 2020 school year.

The State Council of Higher Education of Virginia approved guidelines for the Passport program this week.

The program puts community college students through general education classes that will be accepted at almost every public university or college, cutting the amount of time the student has to spend at more expensive four-year schools.

Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R- Henrico, and Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk introduced legislation in 2018 to create the Passport and the Uniform Certificate of General Studies. The certificate requires twice as many classes as the Passport to cut out about a year of college for students.

The programs come amid heightened attention to the cost of Virginia’s public colleges and universities. In Norfolk Thursday, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam said he will roll out a plan for a “tuition for service” model for free community college. 

And this year, state lawmakers struck a deal to offer state institutions of higher education more money if they agree to freeze tuition. A 2014 report from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission called Virginia’s public institutions “among the nation’s most expensive for students.” 

Also on Thursday, House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said he would push to freeze tuition again when the legislature convenes in January. 

 The Passport will offer roughly one semester of general education classes.

SCHEV and Virginia Community College System staff still have to finalize some of the courses that are included in each program. Under Jones’ and Dunnavant’s legislation, Passport and the Uniform Certificate have to be ready for enrollment by the 2020 school year. 

Currently, one English course in the Passport program won’t count at James Madison University and the College of William and Mary, and one of the math classes in the programs won’t transfer to Christopher Newport University. 

“This is a very significant step forward for transfer students in Virginia,” said Sharon Morrissey, chief academic officer for the Virginia Community College System. “The overall intention is that we’re trying to make transfer more affordable, more efficient and more equitable particularly for those first-generation college students who don’t have parents or people who are helping them navigate the very complex transfer process.”

Community college students have a number of ways to transfer to four-year institutions.The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission counted nearly 300 different transfer agreements between community colleges and four-year institutions in 2017.

Schools can create degree-specific agreements or agreements based on geography, like the one between William & Mary and Thomas Nelson Community College.

The basic and most well-known transfer process requires a student to finish an associate degree at a community college and then enter a four-year institution as a junior, as long as they’ve maintained a certain grade point average. In theory, those students will have finished their general education requirements and are taking classes toward a specialized major. 

But most students don’t pursue that route, and instead transfer to four-year colleges with credits that don’t always fulfill any prerequisites. 

“If they were just randomly taking courses and transferring before they get their associate degree, they had to look up every individual course to make sure it transferred,” said Joe DeFilippo, director of academic affairs and planning for SCHEV. Many students don’t do that or can’t find the right information to plan correctly, DeFilippo said.

Students who transfer from a community college to four-year institutions usually earn more credits when pursuing a bachelor’s degree, according to the JLARC study. But it takes transfer students an average of five years to finish a bachelor’s program, while non-transfer students usually take four years.

Depending on what school a student goes to, that can be an additional $18,000 to $25,000 annual cost, Morrissey said.

In addition to the Passport and uniform certificate program, Morrissey said there has been regional collaboration between community colleges and four-year schools to lay out degree program-specific coursework for students, who tend to transfer to schools near the community college they attend.

For example, Morrissey said, J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College may create general education pathways that fulfill specific requirements for programs at Virginia Commonwealth University, the closest four-year college.