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During my tenure in education, I’ve worked on a number of dual enrollment policies that allow high school students to take college coursework while pursuing a diploma. But these important opportunities to earn college-credit have taken on new meaning now that my son has completed his freshman year in high school and is beginning to contemplate where he might want to go to college.

In most states, community colleges serve many different types of students – from dual enrollment to transfer to individuals seeking a workforce certification or credential. I’ve personally observed the powerful role community colleges can play for transfer students: Danville Community College in Virginia provided my dad the opportunity to prove himself academically in the 1970s. He ultimately transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University where he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees that allowed him to pursue a successful 34-year career as the President & CEO of LCMC Health and Children’s Hospital in New Orleans.

When I became Secretary of Education for Governor Bob McDonnell, we made dual enrollment – at the community college system – a key part of our access, affordability, and degree attainment agenda. Governor McDonnell believed dual enrollment was key to better preparation for postsecondary work while saving students and families thousands of dollars towards an undergraduate degree. In 2012, we championed legislation requiring local school boards to develop an agreement with a community college creating options for students to complete a one-year certificate or an associate degree concurrent with their high school diploma. The following year, we created a Governor’s Medallion award to recognize students during high school graduation who completed their associate degree while in high school. Over 600 medallions were awarded in 2013.

Since our work in 2012 and 2013, the Virginia General Assembly has demonstrated a renewed interest in dual enrollment as the Commonwealth continues to seek greater access and affordability in post-secondary education. Recently, the legislature focused on ensuring greater transparency for students and families, so they know in advance what community college courses transfer to baccalaureate institutions and for what type of credit, e.g., general education, electives, etc.

Quality course delivery has also been a topic of recent legislation hoping to guarantee dual enrollment courses properly prepare students for upper-level coursework they’ll face on the path to their degrees. Last year, Senator Siobhan Dunnavant patroned legislation to create a Passport program that ensures designated dual enrollment classes will satisfy general education requirements at Virginia’s public baccalaureate-granting institutions. In 2018, she and Delegate Chris Jones expanded on this idea by requiring at least 15 credits be included in the Passport Program, making it available through the Online Virginia Network, ensuring information about transferability is easily available on websites and creating pathways from community college programs to baccalaureate institutions for certain programs of study.

Additionally, Delegate Steve Landes, Chairman of the House Education Committee, patroned legislation that requires the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, the Department of Education, and the Virginia Association of School Superintendents to develop a plan for consistent quality between courses offered by local school divisions and courses taught through the community colleges.

I am proud of the work we’re doing in Virginia to expand access, ensure affordability, and increase transparency while maintaining course quality and consistency. Given Virginia’s decentralized “system” of higher education, it is a major undertaking to bring K-12 and all of higher education to the table to work through these tough issues. Students and families will benefit from these efforts and the Commonwealth will benefit from a better-prepared workforce.

In the coming years, I will focus my efforts on encouraging my children to seek dual enrollment opportunities in high school because I know Virginia’s policy environment can ensure easy transferability to state baccalaureate institutions. 

I hope other states will look to Virginia as a model for how policymakers and institution leaders can come together to provide high-quality postsecondary opportunities for students both early and often.


Editor’s note: This perspective was originally posted by the The Hunt Institute. It has been posted with the author’s permission.

Laura Fornash

Laura Fornash is the Senior Vice President of McGuireWoods Consulting and serves as a Hunt Institute Foundation Board Member.