A bold approach to educational inequality

Graduate RVA and its partners work to increase postsecondary completion rates among underrepresented populations

Students wearing graduation caps attend a graduation ceremony. A cap in the foreground says &quot...
Graduate RVA and its partners are working to increase postsecondary completion rates among underrepresented populations. (File photo)

Rarely a day goes by that Stephanie Odera, Ed.D., doesn’t think about the African proverb, “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.”

Odera, associate director in the Virginia Commonwealth University Center for Community Engagement and Impact, has more than 10 years of experience in social work and is a former assistant professor in the VCU School of Social Work, where her teaching and research interests included educational equity, the promotion of racial and economic justice, and social work in school settings.

Her background lends itself to her current role with Graduate RVA, a college access network that seeks to right educational inequalities in the Richmond region by increasing postsecondary completion rates, with a special focus on underrepresented minorities.

“From a social justice perspective, this is something we have to do,” Odera said. “This is about education being used or being positioned as an intervention, because education is connected to everything — your job, housing, health — and is tied to a person's ability to climb the social ladder. If you have parts of a population that are consistently left behind — but are also increasing in number — what do we think is going to happen to our country, state or region?”

Graduate RVA emerged from Bridging Richmond, which over the past 10 years created positive change supporting the educational goals of Virginia residents. Graduate RVA is anchored at VCU, aligning with university efforts to support student success and education policy and practice at the regional, state and federal levels. Odera leads college completion efforts, aided by the leadership of Jason Smith, Ph.D., VCU associate vice provost for community engagement.

Smith oversees Graduate RVA in addition to his responsibilities in the Center for Community Engagement and Impact. He also serves with Higher Learning Advocates, a nonprofit advocacy organization working to advance federal policy on education and training beyond high school. As part of Higher Learning Advocates’ Champions Network, Smith collaborates with state and local leaders to improve quality, outcomes and affordability in postsecondary education.

“The driving passion behind my work in higher education really comes from seeing its power to improve economic opportunity, personal mobility and health,” Smith said. “When you hear the individual stories of students who were in very different situations, and how it impacted them, it reminds me that it's not just the process, it's not just the policy. Our choices really do make a difference in the lives of individuals.”

From a social justice perspective, this is something we have to do. This is about education being used or being positioned as an intervention, because education is connected to everything — your job, housing, health — and is tied to a person's ability to climb the social ladder. If you have parts of a population that are consistently left behind — but are also increasing in number — what do we think is going to happen to our country, state or region?

Reverse transfer agreement

One of Graduate RVA’s initial efforts was to help establish a reverse transfer agreement among VCU, Virginia State University, John Tyler Community College and Reynolds Community College.

In Virginia, more than 1 million workers have some college, but no degree, representing one in five workers. This represents a potential $28 billion in lost earnings and $560 million in foregone state tax revenues. When students transfer from a two-year to a four-year institution before receiving an associate degree and don’t complete a bachelor’s degree, they may have completed or be close to completing an associate degree without knowing it.

Reverse transferring retroactively awards associate degrees to these students through joint degree auditing efforts among community colleges and four-year institutions. Some students are eligible for degree conferment without any additional coursework. Others may need to transfer credits back to the community college for degree completion.

“Higher education institutions that once would have competed for student enrollment are now coming together and supporting each other to accomplish goals for the region,” Odera said. “This is the start of a collective approach to meeting workforce demands and producing the types of credentials and degrees that are needed to have a thriving economy as a region.”

‘Bold plans for the future’

The approach has earned Graduate RVA national attention.

In 2017, the Lumina Foundation in partnership with The Kresge Foundation announced Richmond as one of 17 communities across the country designated as a Talent Hub, or a community that has organized and aligned to create multiple pathways to retain, attract and cultivate talent. As a Talent Hub, Graduate RVA will receive $350,000 in grant funding over three and a half years to support efforts to educate more people, allowing community and postsecondary leaders to better meet the specific needs of residents.

Dakota Pawlicki, the Lumina Foundation’s strategy officer for community mobilization, said that in order to solve complex social problems, the social, private and public sectors must unite around bold regional plans.

“Graduate RVA has proven results that show partners can accomplish more together than they can alone,” Pawlicki said. “Graduate RVA is an exemplar of how these multisector partnerships can operate, meeting regional workforce, education and citizen needs. Lumina supports Graduate RVA … to not only spur their bold plans for the future, but also to serve as a beacon for other communities and cities to model from.”

Graduate RVA representatives recently attended the Lumina Learning Lab in Los Angeles, an invitation-only gathering for designated Talent Hubs to share progress and impact data and work on strategies that drive system change. Smith will be attending the Lumina State Policy Retreat as part of a Virginia delegation in November.

“Whether you take the moral imperative that no one should be left out of opportunity and the ability to participate fully in society, or whether you take a purely economic standpoint that when people are working at their highest potential there is more to contribute back to the state’s economy, there is room for you to get behind this effort,” Smith said. “This is essential work no matter which lens you look through.”

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