The Higher Ed Lobby Fires its Opening Salvo

Gil Minor

Virginia’s colleges, universities and their allies are rolling out a 100-day public relations blitz to promote “reform and reinvestment” in the commonwealth’s system of higher education. The program, GROWTH4VA, will make the connection between higher education and economic growth and opportunity.

Virginia’s public colleges, universities and community colleges contribute more than $36 billion to Virginia’s gross state product, and support more than 167,000 jobs, asserts an op-ed, published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch Sunday by G. Gilmer Minor III and Dennis H. Treacy. Each dollar spent on Virginia’s higher education system produces $21 in economic output and eventually returns $1.92 to the state treasure. The investment “more than pays for itself.”

Dennis Treacy

Minor, former chairman of Owens & Minor, stepped down as chairman of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) last month. Treacy, retired chief sustainability officer for Smithfield Food, is rector of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors. Minor is chairman of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council (VBHEC), and Treacy serves on the board. The VBHEC, an organization of university presidents and C-suite business executives, functions as Virginia’s lobby for higher education. The argument that Minor and Treacy lay out in the op-ed mirrors the agenda published on the VHBEC website.

Virginia’s higher ed system is “the nation’s best,” they say. Virginia colleges and universities have increased enrollment in response to state goals to increase the number of degrees granted, and they have broadened the socio-economic base of students served. Students at Virginia’s public colleges complete their degrees at the second-highest rate in the country, even while commonwealth institutions “generally spend the same or less per student — and often much less — than what their peer institutions spend.”

Virginia ranks 44th in the nation in per-student state support, however, making it 7th lowest in the nation, while tuition levels are among the highest. While the authors did not explicitly call in the op-ed for more state funding for higher ed, which has declined on a per-student basis over the past decade, it is axiomatic in higher-ed circles that cuts in state support have forced colleges and universities to offset the revenue loss by raising tuition and have harmed their competitiveness.

Minor and Treacy write that over the next 100 days the business community will make the connection between a strong higher-ed sector and a strong economy. GROWTH4VA will elucidate four broad strategies:

  • making Virginia the top state for talent;
  • gaining recognition for Virginia as the home of innovators and entrepreneurs;
  • preparing Virginians for great jobs and great lives;
  • providing affordable access for all Virginians.

“We are confident that Virginia’s bipartisan leadership will be full partners in this effort, as they have been for the past decade,” write Minor and Treacy. “Together, we can make Virginia the best place in America to live, learn, work, raise a family, and start and grow a business. Most important, we can make it a thriving community and commonwealth of opportunity for all.”

Bacon’s bottom line: It will be interesting to see how GROWTH4VA makes its case, and what it asks for. Broadly speaking, there is a powerful connection between the strength of a state’s colleges and university and the vibrancy of its economy. But the exact nature of the relationship is murky. On the one hand, tens of thousands of jobs are going begging in Virginia because companies can’t find employees with the skills to fill them. On the other hand, tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of Virginians are working in jobs that don’t require a college degree. Are Virginians under-educated, over-educated, or educated in the wrong disciplines? That’s a hard question to answer.

Also, it is conventional wisdom that strong research universities are indispensable participants in innovation ecosystems that convert research into growing businesses. By this logic, if Virginia wants to build a vital, entrepreneurial economy, it needs strong research universities. However, research universities vary widely in their ability to spin off local jobs and investment. Innovation ecosystems also require leading corporations, deep labor markets, angel investors, venture capitalists, nonprofit networking groups, and a wide array of business services. It is far from clear that Blacksburg and Charlottesville, home to Virginia’s two leading research universities, have the critical mass to assemble such ecosystems.

Finally, there is no ducking the issue of affordability. Clearly, there is a relationship between state support for higher education and tuition levels, although it is not as straightforward as many assume. In my observation, Virginia’s higher-ed leaders place all of the blame for skyrocketing tuition and student debt on cutbacks on state support without acknowledging how their own  contribute to the ever-inflating cost of attendance, which includes not only tuition but fees, room and board. Hopefully, a renewed debate over Virginia’s higher education system will bring greater transparency to university finances and a clearer understanding of where the money goes.

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2 responses to “The Higher Ed Lobby Fires its Opening Salvo

  1. Are Virginians under-educated, over-educated, or educated in the wrong disciplines?

    Educated in the wrong disciplines. Its the foreign born students I see in the STEM fields. A little less so in medicine, but the rest, its a majority. Can’t go through a 4 year PE/arts/history of women’s lib and think there is a job market.

  2. Liberal arts colleges like the one I teach at (full disclosure there) have tried to argue that major sometimes matters less than skill set/educational setting. The idea is that you’re more employable getting a humanities degree at our place (with personal mentoring, training, and opportunities to shine) than you might be getting a STEM degree while fighting your way through a large university. The AAC&U has some data (https://aacu.org/leap/public-opinion-research) that argues employers mostly want the skill set liberal ed provides. (or at least CLAIMS to provide – much less data on student outcomes, unfortunately.) The big problem, as Bacon always notes, is affordability – liberal ed is expensive.

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