Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: N. Virginia Community College Is Our Unheralded Gem

By Julie Felgar

What if I told you that in half the time for two thirds less the cost, your son/daughter/grandchild/friend/self could get skilled in an essential career and be snapped up in a greedy flurry of hiring. Sounds promising, right? What is not to like? Well, friends, I am telling you that is indeed the case. While Falls Church City has one of the most exceptional education programs in the state and likely one of the highest graduation rates to university enrollment ratios in the nation, we are also extremely fortunate to have a hidden gem in our backyard, Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA). Four-year university paths are perfect for some, but not for everyone. It is time we re-examined our collective societal perspective on the role community colleges play and should play in our educational hierarchy.

Consider this: NOVA awards more IT degrees than any other two-year college in America and was recently ranked as producing the fifth highest paid cybersecurity talent of any college or university in the country. While traditional degrees are available in a wide range of fields with transfer agreements to every public university in the state, NOVA also offers exceptional workforce skills education toward degrees or certification in high demand fields. This includes everything from HVAC installation and maintenance to cloud computing and a wide range of healthcare programs including nursing, sonography, respiratory therapy, and dental hygiene. In addition, the College also offers high-demand, hands-on education in welding and automotive technology. NOVA prepares students from all walks of life to pursue degrees and certifications in all types of fields that translate to high paying jobs.

Whatever the higher education path one takes or returns to, the bottom line is being able to support yourself and your family with a truly viable living wage. Many of our certification programs lead to $60,000 plus starting salaries. The common complaint in our area from industry is that there are not enough qualified employees to fill jobs. It is never that there are too few jobs available. Many graduates walk out of traditional four-year colleges with debt and lacking translatable career skill sets. Oftentimes, this is because traditional four-year degrees focus more on theory than application and changing curriculum at that level is a slow bureaucratic process. Additionally, many higher education campuses are in areas where there are not enough opportunities for co-ops, internships and the like that help complement degree programs. Meanwhile, national corporations like Micron, Northrup Grumman, Amazon Web Services and the region’s data center operators all work closely with NOVA to ensure a ready pipeline of employees — the system at NOVA is nimbler and more flexible and adapts to the faster pace of technology and business in general.

Somewhere along the way, going to a community college became looked down upon. I have witnessed students of George Mason High School, Yorktown and McLean talk about NOVA. It is usually in a disparaging manner. Their parents often follow suit. When I find out individuals have chosen NOVA as either a step to a four-year degree or for training in a certain field, they get a resounding high five (pre-Covid) and an excited response. When I am hiring and I get an applicant who did all or half of their education in a community college system or is a veteran, I immediately pay more attention to their resume. To me, it is an indicator that they clearly understand the value of money and time, they can usually check entitlement at the door (if they have any at all) and that they are probably able to work more easily in diverse workplaces.

Community colleges are the bedrock of higher education. I would argue that as we recover from Coronavirus, the community colleges are even more important. Thousands upon thousands of adults are in need of re-skilling. With anxiety rates among teenagers spiking, imagine taking away the worry of college admission and the persistent drive of grades and competition in our education system. NOVA has a 100 percent acceptance rate. This translates to a more diverse student body that is a better reflection ethnically, economically and demographically of the community of Northern Virginia than most other student bodies can claim. One not only learns the skill sets they need for a job or to move onto a four-year degree, they learn how to operate in and value a diverse environment. NOVA is a proven, high quality, affordable gateway to a four-year degree, an industry-supported training center for technical skill sets, a matchmaker of workforce needs and an open conduit of talented and career ready human capital into our local economy.

Next time you have a conversation related to higher ed, think about the value proposition that sits on our backyard. Next time you think about how to share your vast career knowledge, think about becoming an adjunct professor at NOVA. Next time you panic about the costs of university and how to pay for yourself or your child to have access to reskilling or a degree, think about NOVA. And lastly, next time you need to hire, call NOVA and get connected to their career placement office. You won’t regret it.


Julie Felgar sits on the board for Northern Virginia Community College