Spring is the time of year when school districts in the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula begin preparing budgets for the upcoming school year. It’s no easy task to balance the need to educate students with fiscal realities that often require public agencies to do more with less. Many residents here and across America are asking tough questions about public education. They want to know why an investment in local schools is important not only to students but to the community at large.
Recent research provides some compelling answers. More education means more earning power. An Alliance for Excellent Education study found that high school dropouts earned an average of $19,000 annually, while high school graduates averaged $28,000 and college graduates $52,000. Another intriguing finding: Georgetown University researchers discovered that 27 percent of people who complete a vocational license or certificate program after high school earn more than those with bachelor’s degrees.
There’s some job security for those with better educations as well. During the recent economic downturn, the national unemployment rate for those without a high school education was 15%. The rate for those with a high school diploma was 10%, while those with college degrees experienced only 5% unemployment.
What’s more, there’s a clear link between education and economic health, say researchers at RAND Corporation. More educated people are better able to provide for themselves and their families. In turn that leads to more vibrant communities where people’s standard of living is higher.
Communities where the population is better educated have lower crime rates and a healthier population, leading to reduced expenditures for public safety and health care services. Bottom line: education pays off for everyone.
Educational institutions in the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula understand this, and are sharpening their focus to help students prepare for careers. One key place where that’s happening is Rappahannock Community College, which provides opportunities for education and workforce development across a spectrum of programs.
RCC president Elizabeth Crowther says the college is in the business of economic development. “Our job is to lift people up. That can mean preparing them to go on to a four-year program, complete an associate degree in nursing or engineering, earn a career certificate to that offers immediate entry into the workforce, or complete high school. We want to create an environment where people are prepared to work and employers are satisfied with those who complete our programs.”
Crowther thinks it is important for RCC to look for opportunities that will benefit individuals and the community and then figure out how to make these possibilities a reality. “We need to be creative in thinking about how we provide education. Our communities need a strong middle class, and the best way to attract businesses that can provide middle-class jobs and good paychecks is to develop work-ready employees who want to live in this region.”
RCC has several degree programs designed to provide students a foundation for transferring to four-year institutions, including ones that prepare them for further study in the arts and sciences, business administration, engineering or social work. A number of associate degree programs equip students with skills that can be applied immediately upon graduation: business management, engineering technology, protective services technology, emergency medical services, and nursing.
“Our communities need people who can fill jobs in these technical and medical fields, and graduates often stay close to home after completing RCC, so there’s a double benefit to offering these programs,” Crowther says.
“The college’s Office of Workforce Development focuses on other immediate needs,” says Jason Perry, RCC’s vice president for workforce and community development. “Our mission is to serve existing business and those who might want to move into our area by creating a work-ready force. We can organize training programs tailored for a company’s specific needs, and we routinely retrain people in this region for new jobs or career changes.”
Perry oversees a diverse educational enterprise that provides apprenticeship training, courses leading to certification or licensure for dental assistants, early childhood educators, paraprofessionals and tradespeople, and programs for adults who need to complete their high school diploma. Workforce Development also offers classes in welding, business and nonprofit management, heating and air conditioning, winemaking and real estate, to name a few, and courses for educators who need to maintain certification.
“We are always looking for partnerships that will allow us to prepare people for good jobs close to home,” Perry says. That’s why RCC recently joined with Thomas Nelson Community College and Huntington Ingalls Industries to create a Marine Electrician Training Program. Operated out of a former marine services establishment on Gwynns Island, the course allows students to learn basic marine electrician skills required for working in the shipbuilding industry. Perry says students who complete the program are almost guaranteed jobs.
“We’ve also been involved in helping local governments and nonprofits strengthen their leadership and business acumen,” Crowther adds. She is particularly pleased with the college’s involvement with Lead Northern Neck, an initiative designed to get business leaders to understand the challenges of local government agencies and nonprofits and cooperate in strengthening these organizations.
Another of RCC’s special strengths has been its collaboration with local secondary schools. Through its dual enrollment programs, RCC provides high-schoolers the opportunity to earn college credit for completing rigorous college coursework while still in high school. It’s little wonder that the program is popular. Students get a head start on completing college, since these credits are transferable to many institutions in Virginia and elsewhere. They can save as much as a semester or more on college tuition. “We have the largest percentage of dual enrollment of any community college in Virginia,” Crowther says proudly.
Among RCC’s recent successes has been its partnership with the New Kent County School District to create the Bridging Communities Regional Technical Center, which offers a variety of technical courses and is home to a STEM Academy that provides students opportunities to develop their interests in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “Collaborative efforts such as this one show that when school districts and RCC work together, we can produce great results for individuals and the community as a whole.”