A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Advancing Toward a Four-Year Degree

By Priyanka Champaneri, BA '05, MFA '10 on March 18, 2020

Of the 80 percent of community college students nationally who say they want to complete a bachelor’s degree, only 20 percent actually do so after seven years. For the rest, the obstacles they face—credits that don’t transfer, money and time lost, a lack of connection at the four-year school—far too often leaves them feeling further behind than where they started, in debt, and unable to move forward professionally.

George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) wanted to find a better way. They wanted to build a bridge for those students—and they wanted to do it together.

“Our region is booming and CEOs can’t find enough talent,” says Michelle Marks, MS ’93, PhD ’98, vice president for academic innovation and new ventures at Mason. “We knew we had to work harder to take down barriers that prevent talented students from completing their degrees.”

The result is ADVANCE, a Mason/NOVA partnership that provides a more seamless and affordable path from community college to a four-year degree, saving students time and money—an average of $15,000 on the cost of a bachelor’s degree for most students.

Mason and NOVA have a lot in common. As the largest institutions of their kind in Virginia—NOVA the largest two-year institution, and Mason the largest public research university—together, they serve more than 110,000 students. The student populations at both are highly diverse in ethnicity, age, and employment status.

Mason enrolls almost twice as many transfer students as any other Virginia four-year institution. Each year, 3,000 students come to Mason directly from NOVA.

ADVANCE welcomed its inaugural class of 319 in fall 2018. One year later, student enrollment had shot up to 692, almost 20 percent higher than projected goals. By 2030, enrollment could swell to more than 6,500 students.

The ADVANCE Program is quickly becoming a national model for the transfer process. In 2018, the Chronicle of Higher Education named the NOVA-to-Mason path “one of the nation’s most successful transfer partnerships.” The National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition also recognized the partnership with its 2019 John N. Gardner Institutional Excellence for Students in Transition Award.

Identifying the Obstacles

According to Ashlie Prioleau, executive director of ADVANCE, data show that students starting their postsecondary education at a community college—an option that comes at a lower price point than most four-year institutions—clearly had the drive and intention to continue their studies and earn a bachelor’s degree. So what was stopping them?

“Students were saying it’s because so many of their credits wouldn’t transfer. Or they don’t have enough money to cover the new and surprising cost of a four-year degree. So many of these students are also working parents, along with other unique circumstances that we in higher education can’t just overlook,” says Prioleau.

When the curriculum between two institutions does not align, students trying to transfer literally end up paying the price in both money and time. A 2017 U.S. Government Accountability Office report estimates that students transferring between institutions in the years 2004 to 2009 lost an average of 43 percent of their credits.

Yet the advantages of having a bachelor’s degree when job hunting are proven. According to the Center for Education and the Workforce, 65 percent of jobs in 2020 will require, at minimum, either a bachelor’s degree, an associate’s degree, or some college credits. And when that degree is earned in a region like Northern Virginia, already a hub for major employers in high-demand fields, the benefits only compound.

“It’s not just about opening the door to a four-year degree,” Prioleau says. “It’s about upward social mobility.”

A New Model of Transfer

ADVANCE was designed to be a joint admissions program: NOVA students signing up for ADVANCE automatically clear Mason’s admissions process. The other aspects of the program are tailored to bypass most obstacles.

Prioleau says that the pathways—an aligned curriculum with detailed course plans—are key to the program’s success. “It just creates so much less stress for the students.”

An aligned curriculum for specific majors ensures that students waste neither time nor money on excess credits at both NOVA and Mason as long as they follow the course plan outlined in their pathway. ADVANCE’s 102 pathways focus on areas where regional employers initially expressed a need for talent, including health care, teacher education, and technology, but have grown to encompass majors such as computer game design and neuroscience.

“Faculty are the superstars of ADVANCE,” says Marks. “Each pathway is a result of Mason and NOVA faculty working together to ensure that courses align and move students forward in their programs. You can’t overstate the value of these collaborations. The two-to-four-year disconnect exists between higher ed institutions across the country, and our faculty has been able to overcome it.”

ADVANCE students are treated like Mason students from their first day, receiving a Mason ID card and immediate access to all Mason services, including University Libraries and Career Services. Dedicated support staff guide the students every step of the way.

A World of Support

As an ADVANCE student success coach, Sharon Kim, BA Psychology ’03, MEd ’08—who divides her work week between Mason’s Fairfax Campus and NOVA’s Annandale Campus—is often listening more closely than students realize. “I try to pay attention to questions students ask, or stories that they share, so that I can identify specific support that students will need,” she says.

This means that when a student is sharing a personal anecdote, the wheels in Kim’s head are turning, and those stories turn into opportunities to point out resources, whether they be child-care options, learning strategies, or career resources. Kim’s current caseload of 350 includes online students, adult learners, student-parents, international students, and more.

“We look at the whole person,” says Kim, who was also a transfer student from NOVA before earning her Mason degrees. “It’s not just about academics. We try to empower students to remove barriers. Every student’s knowledge varies, and meeting them where they are is key to providing support.”

As part of a three-year partnership with ADVANCE, InsideTrack student success experts will work directly with Mason and NOVA advisers, faculty, and counselors to provide training, development, and the certification of coaches, managers, and program partners. InsideTrack is also developing an ongoing training, certification, and quality-assurance program, as well as a success coaching handbook tailored to ADVANCE students’ needs.

Growing for the Future

The program’s initial successes have not gone unnoticed, with external support and recognition coming from multiple areas. The Strada Education Network awarded ADVANCE a $1 million, three-year grant in early 2019. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation announced a $250,000 award, to be shared jointly between ADVANCE and the Early Identification Program (EIP), in September 2019.

Area employers have also pledged their support. A gift from the Northrop Grumman Foundation will establish a scholarship fund for ADVANCE students pursuing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics degrees. Support from the Micron Technology Foundation will provide both stipends and coaching support for NOVA engineering students transferring to Mason, as well as ADVANCE outreach into local high schools.

Prioleau emphasizes the push for a more direct pipeline taking students from graduation and straight into jobs with area employers. “Our goal in the second year of the program is to build out more and more of these [employer] connections,” she says. “We’re working on more commitments for these employers, who have given us funding already, to hire our students.”

And, like the students it serves, ADVANCE has big dreams of its own. “The purpose is to create a national model for other institutions to replicate,” Prioleau says. She’s had several conversations with other universities and community college systems, all interested in learning how to implement a similar program at their institutions.

“ADVANCE has certainly achieved more than we expected, faster than we expected, and there’s still plenty of work ahead,” says Marks. “Mason’s goals are always big, but they’re also individual. Every ADVANCE student that makes it across the finish line and earns a degree—that’s a major win for students, families, and our region. It’s what our program and our university are here to do.”


By the Numbers (Fall 2019)

102 pathways to degrees

1,092 students

39 percent of inaugural students were enrolled in tech-related degree pathways

48 p­­­ercent of inaugural students qualified for Pell Grants

$15,000 average savings on the cost of a bachelor’s degree

$2.3 million raised from employers and foundations for scholarship and program support

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