In 2018, officials at the New College Institute in Virginia announced it was collaborating with Newport News Shipbuilding, the largest industrial employer in the state. That partnership was supposed to credential students in 3D imaging to develop a trained workforce.
The mission of the New College Institute, which is state-supported, is to promote and coordinate educational and workforce training opportunities, but it doesn’t operate its own accredited programs. Since 2017, the institute has received $17 million from the state, with additional millions approved.
But the partnership with Newport News Shipbuilding never came to fruition. Others, too, fizzled out. A $1 million piece of automotive film equipment sat unused because the company it was meant to train people for didn’t need the extra help after all.
Those revelations were all part of a withering multi-part series on the New College Institute by the Martinsville Bulletin, a local newspaper, published in November.
Now, NCI is in a transition period. It has no permanent executive director, its relationship with its own supporting foundation is rocky, and it has graduated just 54 students from partnered degree programs since the 2018-2019 academic year.
Letters to the editor at the Bulletin have called NCI “a failure” and “a disservice to taxpayers.” An editorial from the Roanoke Times said the Bulletin’s reporting “paints a strange, disturbing vision of an institution far adrift from its original mission to make four-year degree programs readily available to nearby residents, and collecting millions in state funding while running only a skeleton crew’s worth of courses.”
The institute has faced challenges that are very specific to its situation, such as being unable to offer degree programs on its own without a university partner. But in its short-term training programs, the institute has also come face to face with some of the realities of attempting to forge partnerships and spur economic development in today’s world. The work of creating and delivering workforce training, while enjoying a moment in the spotlight, isn’t always picture perfect.
A divided mission
The New College Institute was founded in 2006 by state charter. Its mission was to expand educational opportunities, develop a trained workforce, and diversify the regional economy — once yoked to tobacco.
In the early days, NCI brought in faculty members from state universities to teach students and paid those institutions annually for the partnerships. But in the 2010s, the institute decided that model was no longer sustainable, said Christina Reed, interim executive director of NCI, who took over the role this summer.
New partnerships did not involve paying colleges. The institute also started focusing more on short-term workforce training programs and credentials, after external research suggested that approach could help fill gaps in the economy, Reed said.
Though criticism of the institute has been acute, Reed said she disagrees with assertions that NCI hasn’t lived up to its mission or goals. The Bulletin’s reporting focused in part on degree programs. But Virginia statute says that NCI will not only connect students to degree programs but also provide workforce training.
“To say that we’re failing a mission when they were only discussing degrees, I do not think is accurate,” Reed said.
Does she believe, then, that the workforce training initiatives have succeeded?
“It depends,” Reed said.
'What is success?'
Some of the short-term programs have been successful, Reed said, like one that helps counselors get certified online to offer telemedicine. That program has national reach, she said.
A self-paced cybersecurity program the institute offers from Radford University prepares students for industry credentials and offers university credit, Reed said. The institute also offers courses in wind energy through the Global Wind Organisation, including sea survival and basic technical training.
But agreements for some other partnerships have expired and not been renewed. Reed said the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted those relationships, and short-staffed employers haven’t had time to meet with NCI. In the 2018-2019 academic year, NCI had nearly 1,000 students enrolled in its noncredit industry programs. Last year, it had only 362, according to data provided by the institute.
The number of students enrolled in credit-bearing certificates dipped from nearly 3,400 at its peak in 2019-2020 to a little under 2,100 this past year.
The institute faces a number of hurdles in not just getting programs up and running, but getting students to attend. Its leaders try to steer clear of creating programs that are redundant with Patrick and Henry Community College, which also serves the area.
But while generous grant options mean high school seniors from Henry County can attend community college tuition-free, that offer doesn’t apply to the state university partnerships NCI offers. The institute’s relationship with its foundation, which provides some scholarships, has been rocky since it donated money to NCI university partners instead of to the institute directly, Reed said.
Reed said she’d like to bring in new partnerships and has plans to meet with employers and universities this year. Another barrier to a successful program, she suggested, is the tight labor market.
“People who want to work in this area are working,” she said. The real barriers between residents and career promotions or switches are money and family obligations, she said.
NCI's board, which includes several state lawmakers, still wants to focus on both degree programs and workforce credentials, Reed said. But it is now interested in more accountability around them.
The board also intends to hire a permanent executive director. Reed holds the position on an interim basis, succeeding another interim — Karen Jackson, who held the position from July 2019 until June 2022, though she didn’t live in the Martinsville area, the Martinsville Bulletin reported.
NCI requested $100,000 from its foundation to keep Jackson on as a consultant. But the foundation denied that request.
Reed served as assistant director of finance and operations at NCI before stepping into the interim executive role, but she has no background in academic programming, she said.
Some of the issues plaguing NCI predate Jackson. In 2016-17, the institute had only 13 bachelor’s degree graduates. Last year, it had five.
Nicholas Freitas is a Republican member of Virginia’s House of Delegates and chair of its higher education subcommittee. He wants Virginia to scale back its financial support for higher education. The problems with NCI support such cuts, he said.
“There have been programs at NCI that have not been as successful as anybody intended or had hoped, but I think this is actually pointing to something that’s a larger problem and not just a one-off at NCI,” he said. “Higher education has grown accustomed to the idea that taxpayers will be required to subsidize higher education.”
Reed takes a more philosophical view on the situation.
“We’re doing a lot. Our buckets are many,” she said. “Given our locality, given our population, the question then is, what is success?”
In the last several years, short-term programs have been the darling of philanthropy and state policymakers. But not every program works out long term or achieves its goals.
Advocates for job training say institutional leaders can follow some best practices to connect students to good local jobs.
Stephen Yadzinski, vice president of strategy and growth at JFF, a nonprofit organization that focuses on connecting students to the workforce, said short-term programs have boomed in part because today’s economy requires workers to keep up with fast-moving technology. A multiyear degree program can sometimes feel too long for students who are eager to improve their financial situations.
But the quality of shorter programs has been uneven. The backbone to building quality is relationships and partnerships with employers, Yadzinski said, speaking generally.
“One of the hardest things for educational providers to be able to do is to build those employer relationships,” he said. But it’s important to work with employers to understand the skills they are looking for and build programs that teach those capabilities, he said.
Flexibility and accessibility in scheduling are important, he said, but so are additional coaching and supports for students. In a good relationship, partners will have feedback loops and be able to collaborate on curriculum, Yadzinski said.
Part of the challenge when forging those connections is making sure that the jobs employers would be hiring students for are indeed good jobs, ones that offer a family-sustaining wage in the region and offer benefits like paid time off.
But even with those things in mind, Yadzinski said sometimes success hinges on dynamic leadership.
“It comes down to, at this moment, the creativity, the drive, the grit of the leaders of that institution to build those relationships,” he said. “It’s incredibly hard work.”