Growing up, Brittney “Alyssa” Santos helped her Spanish-speaking mom navigate the school system and fill out forms for field trips. As she prepared for high school graduation, she worried about planning for college and balancing it with work.

“I always had to be on top of everything and mature,” said Santos, 20, of Arlington, Virginia. “I was stressed about going to college — I’m fully dependent on myself.”

Yet what she found waiting for her at Northern Virginia Community College was a holistic support system, complete with one advisor who would serve as a coach — for her academics, career, even life. “I don’t even know what I would have done if I didn’t become part of this program,” Santos said. “It’s taken so much weight off my shoulders to know I’m on the right path.”

Santos is among 2,220 students enrolled in ADVANCE, a partnership between Northern Virginia Community College and George Mason University that gives NOVA students personalized support to complete their bachelor’s degrees while helping them save time and money. The program works to ensure students have the administrative and coaching support to succeed, not only in school but in launching a career.

Nationwide, about 80 percent of students enrolling in community college say they intend to continue at a four-year college or university to earn a bachelor’s degree. But only 15 percent of community college students achieve that goal within six years, according to 2020 National Student Clearinghouse data.

NOVA and George Mason came together to reduce this so-called “transfer leakage,” and one of the ways they succeed is by simplifying the transition from NOVA to George Mason. From the moment students enter NOVA through the ADVANCE program, they can access the services and benefits provided to George Mason students — with no lingering fear that when their two-year education is complete, another admissions process looms.

“We’ve reimagined the word ‘transfer,’” said Marc Austin, executive director of professional education and academic ventures at George Mason. “Through partnership and integration between our institutions, being in the ADVANCE program means that when you’re a NOVA student, you’re a Mason student.”

That one change, simple in concept but requiring layers of effort from both institutions to make it a reality, affects students’ identity from the beginning of their postsecondary journey and helps them envision what’s next in their path. And it is just one example of how the ADVANCE program is a pioneer in streamlining the student experience — not just from two-year to four-year schools, but also into a college major, a degree, and a career path that fits their skills in a way they can demonstrate and sell to employers.

“A lot of folks start off in a community college, and the barriers are substantial,” Austin said. “Not only financial and life and all the other things that we need to pay attention to, but the administrative barriers can be really frustrating.”

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Here are some steps NOVA and George Mason took to shrink those barriers — and help students connect with a field of study, a completed degree, and a career:

  • Bring faculty together — from both institutions — to build a seamless curriculum.“That seems simple. It seems easy. And it’s probably one of the most difficult things that any institution is able to do,” said Jason Dodge, the ADVANCE director.This process was arduous, he noted, even though the faculty had a head start because they commonly work together and several instructors teach at both institutions. ADVANCE leaders pulled together NOVA and Mason faculty, positioned them around tables in daylong workshops, and appealed to their shared desire to serve students.

    “We both appreciate that we have a common mission, and the mission is to educate students, and we need to do whatever is necessary to ensure that the student experience is going to be the best possible,” Dodge said.

    The result? NOVA and George Mason now share more than 100 of what the ADVANCE team calls “curricular pathways.”

    “The fundamental idea is that nothing you do at NOVA is a waste of time,” Austin said. “It will be counted when it gets to Mason.”

  • Offer an individual success coach — for academics, career, and life — who sticks with the student from the two-year school through the four-year one.Strada research shows students are more likely to believe their education is valuable when they receive excellent academic and career advising. But George Mason enhances this more traditional advising model in a couple of ways: It pairs a student with one advisor who works with them throughout their undergraduate years, and it broadens the kinds of problems addressed through campus advising.“It’s the little things that cause students to get frustrated and bounce out,” said Austin, who calls one-on-one coaching “the secret sauce” of the ADVANCE program. “So for us, it’s having someone that can talk to you about more than just academics. It’s a much more holistic coaching process.”
  • Invite community college students to be part of the four-year university’s culture.“A lot of students come to community college … aspiring to be part of a four-year program. We’re able to make that a reality. Day one, as soon as they commit themselves to the ADVANCE program, they get access to the Mason events, the Mason student life, the discounts, the student resources.”Santos, who earned her associate degree from NOVA in spring 2021 and is now pursuing a bachelor’s degree in communications from George Mason, said her ongoing relationship with her ADVANCE success coach, Sabrey Stewart, allowed them to discuss ongoing issues and obstacles.

    “I was so nervous and anxious that I was going to take the wrong class,” Santos said. “She has answered all my questions. She knows what we talked about the previous visit and knows I work a busy job.”

  • Engage with local and regional employers so the seamless pathways you build don’t end with the curriculum.Just as creating curriculum pathways between NOVA and George Mason required faculty members to come together to do the hard work of aligning their curricula, ADVANCE also pulled together regional employers to discuss the skills they expect from students — and how those skills relate to college degrees.With funding from a Strada Education Network grant, ADVANCE created the Career Accelerator Toolkit, a web-based tool informed by employer feedback and labor market data that allows students to track the skills they’ve learned in class, those they will pick up if they stay the course, and how those skills relate to jobs in their areas of study.

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    One feature of the online toolkit is the “Skills Transcript,” which allows ADVANCE students to visualize the skills they already have acquired and consider how those abilities relate to careers they want to pursue.

    The idea, Austin said, is to create more transparency for students, faculty, and employers about how lessons learned in the classroom relate to real-world industry needs.

    “It’s designed to show you what you get at the end and remind you when you walk into a job interview what you do and how you accomplish it,” Austin said. “We know employers are hiring not only based on skill, but your recollection of skills.”

    So far, ADVANCE has retained 89 percent of the students who started in its spring 2019 cohort, and the students have earned an average 3.18 grade point average. The program’s leaders are proud that it seems to be benefiting students who traditionally have been underrepresented in higher education: Forty-eight percent of enrollees are first-generation college students; 61 percent are low-income; and 60 percent are people of color.

    “Why are we making obstacles for people to be successful? We should be helping them succeed,” Santos said. “Let’s not make obstacles for getting to college, especially for students like me who already have a lot on their plates.”