Usually when something is offered for free, it behooves us to read the fine print, to look for the catch. This seems especially pertinent for cell phone contracts. Or anything with the word “trial” associated with it.
A public education, from kindergarten through 12th grade, comes without a cost. Yes, of course, there are local taxes and private schoolers and homeschoolers and everything in between, but for the vast majority, we do not cut a check every month to put our kids on a yellow bus and send them off to school.
But what happens after the high school diploma has been unfurled and tucked nostalgically in a scrapbook? Hands-down, the social expectation is to transition feverishly into a major college or university. However, the trend of higher education is changing. Enrollments are down, trade careers and vocational programs are soaring, gap years are encouraged, and many well-known companies (psst, like Apple and Google), do not require a 4-year college degree.
It’s quite possible agreeing to pay top dollar to take general education classes, change majors five times in four years, all while learning to “adult” for the first time, has become the catch we’ve been looking for.
Chris McKlarney, county administrator in Giles County (or, colloquially, the “Father of ACCE,” depending on whom you ask), observed a successful program at nearby Virginia Western Community College. Then he spearheaded the creation of a similar program with New River Community College (NRCC). A program without fine print.
Access to Community College Education (ACCE), according to the NRCC website, “is an economic development public/private partnership that makes college available debt-free to high school and home-schooled graduates by funding NRCC tuition for two years.”
“The name of the game of economic development is talent. You have to be able to track talent, retain it and grow your own. Not only is it a great program for our kids to help them get ahead in life, but it’s also great for our region. We’re turning out a workforce that’s ready and able to go. New River Community College does a fantastic job of preparing those kids for their futures,” McKlarney offers.
Participating in ACCE
By “ready to go” McKlarney means “without debt.” Simply, a student can apply to receive ACCE funds, graduate from NRCC with a 2-year degree and either enter the workforce or transfer to a 4-year institution, without debt, regardless of family income.
Funding for the program comes from the localities themselves, local businesses, private donors and grants.
“It felt like the teachers weren’t doing it for the money incentive, and I wasn’t paying to be there. They were teaching me because they wanted me to learn, they wanted me to continue learning,” offers Cade Green, a 2023 graduate of the ACCE program. “I can see people looking at [Blacksburg] as an education hot spot and not being able to afford it. But [with ACCE] they are still able to go to college and then get accepted to Virginia Tech afterward.”
Applications are organized by locality and available to students from Floyd, Giles, Montgomery and Pulaski counties and the City of Radford. Career coaches have offices in all nine high schools to assure graduating seniors are fully informed about the option and associated requirements for ACCE.
There is a bulleted list of criteria with the biggies being having and maintaining at 2.5 Grade Point Average (GPA) plus residency in the aforementioned jurisdictions. Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) documents must be completed. Full-time enrollment of 12 credits per semester is required, along with completing at least 80 to 100 hours of community service annually, in a non-profit organization in your home locality. At the close of 2022, 163,000 hours of community service were logged under the ACCE program.
What makes it unique is that NRCC does not manage the community service coordination, the school districts do. So in exchange for their financial commitment and contribution to the ACCE program, the localities get volunteers to place throughout the immediate community wherever there is a need.
Community service is no longer stigmatized as a redemptive punishment for poor choices. Now it’s the philanthropic stepping stone to a future professional path.
McKlarney adds: “With community service, students experience different types of work. It exposes them to something they normally wouldn’t do. And that’s valuable. We’re training the next generation of volunteers. We want kids to understand how important it is to for them to do things in their own community. If you’re not exposed to it, you’ll never know it’s even there.”
Angie Covey, executive director of the New River Community College Educational Foundation, has found that students often get hired as a result of their community service work. The non-profits recognize that energetic, dedicated volunteers often translate to reliable, paid employees.
“It’s such a value when we talk to those students and say to them, your community is the reason this is happening, your local government, businesses and industries. The individuals within your community are the reason we are able to make this promise. The communities asked us to do this, we didn’t ask the communities to do this,” Covey concludes.
It’s really a win-win for all who touch the program — for students, for residents, for the municipalities of the New River Valley and for volunteerism. Investing in today’s students cycles back to benefiting tomorrow’s community, with results that last long after the free cell phone minutes expire.
Nancy S. Moseley is a freelance writer from Blacksburg and changed majors four times in four years. After graduation, she supplemented her degree with summer school classes to assure employability. Had it been a viable path then, she would have definitely cold-called Google.
All Things ACCE: www.nr.edu/acce/
Text by Nancy S. Moseley