Making the Case for More Higher Ed Investment

Smithfield, the world’s largest producer of pork products, may do business in 41 countries, but its headquarters are located in Smithfield, Va., and the company recruits heavily from Virginia colleges and universities. “We need accountants, engineers, doctors, and lawyers,” says Dennis Treacy, the former chief sustainability officer who now runs the company foundation. Meanwhile, the company’s factories are so automated these days that they use computer-controlled equipment to cut bacon strips. In addition to headquarters professionals, he says, “We need people with computer skills.”

Dennis Treacy

Treacy also serves as rector of Virginia Tech, his alma mater, and as chairman of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. He fervently believes that the prosperity of Virginia businesses and their employees requires a strong system of higher education. Virginia’s colleges and universities provide a pipeline of talent that enables companies to compete in a global marketplace. They equip Virginians with the skills needed to find high-paying jobs. And their research creates new technology that spins off entrepreneurial startup companies.

Oh, Treacy also serves on the board of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council, the lobbying arm of the higher-ed sector and its industry allies. Accordingly, he is stumping for the GROWTH4VA campaign to win state support for higher ed. He outlined the core priorities in an op-ed published Sunday with co-author G. Gilmer Minor III, former chairman of Owens & Minor, and he made time for Bacon’s Rebellion Monday to delve into the details.

GROWTH4VA’s core priorities are to:

  • Make Virginia the top state for talent;
  • Make Virginia known as the home of innovators and entrepreneurs;
  • Prepare Virginians for great jobs and great lives; and
  • Provide affordable access for all Virginians.

Top state for talent.┬áThe GROWTH4VA platform calls for “reform-based investments” that will keep Virginia on track for meeting the goal of the 2011 Top Jobs Act: conferring 100,000 more degrees and certificates by 2025 than had been projected before 2011, and making sure those degrees are concentrated in STEM-H fields of science, technology, engineering, math and healthcare. GROWTH4VA also backs the goal articulated by the state’s plan for higher education to make Virginia the “best educated state” by 2030.

To achieve those goals, GROWTH4VA will promote business/higher-ed partnerships that align training programs with job opportunities, close skills gaps hampering business and job growth, attract top talent to Virginia, and provide enhanced training for vets and adults.

Treacy cited Governor Terry McAuliffe’s observation that some 50,000 information technology jobs in Virginia are going unfilled. Higher-ed and industry need to work together to meet that need, he says. He doesn’t put the entire onus on higher-ed to solve the problem, though. Virginia businesses need to step up, he says, by creating more internships, apprenticeships and other opportunities for students to gain “real world experience.”

I asked Treacy if making Virginia the best educated state in the country was a useful goal. What good does it do for students to earn degrees that Virginia labor markets can’t absorb? Could pumping out too many bachelor’s degree contribute to the problem of “mal-employment”? I cited research by Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP) president Stephen Moret that found that 45% of recent college graduates nationally are working in jobs that don’t require college-level skills. Could Virginia, I asked, be over-investing in higher education? Treacy’s response to the mal-investment issue: “We haven’t gotten into that yet.”

Innovators and entrepreneurs. The GROWTH4VA platform urges “investments” — presumably backed by state tax dollars — that will increase Virginia’s share of federal and private research grants. The group also wants to encourage industry-university collaboration that commercializes new discoveries locally through business startups.

The assumption here is that increased university research will spur creation of local enterprises and jobs. However, the process of translating research into jobs is highly uneven around the country. Top research universities are part of innovation ecosystems that involve angel investors, venture capitalists, industry clusters, executives with entrepreneurial skill sets, and large labor pools. Without those other elements, university research does little to stimulate the local economy. A problem in Virginia, I suggested to Treacy, is that Virginia’s two major research universities, Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia, are located in two of the state’s smaller metropolitan areas whose size handicaps them in building innovation ecosystems.

Tracey acknowledged the mismatch. Speaking as rector of Virginia Tech, he said, “Blacksburg is a beautiful place to be. But we understand the need to get to the urban centers.” He noted that Tech is expanding its degree programs in Northern Virginia, and it is partnering with Carilion Clinic to build a medical research hub in Roanoke. He also cited UVa’s research partnership with Inova Health System in Inova’s Center for Personalized Health in Fairfax.

Great jobs and great lives. One of Virginia’s premier higher-ed achievements is graduating the second highest percentage of students within six years of any state in the country. GROWTH4VA calls for going one step further and helping students into the marketplace. Virginia, says its platform, should focus on degrees and credentials that “lead to good jobs and higher earnings.” And the commonwealth should ease the transition through better guidance counseling, and by creating more internships and other workplace pipeline programs and online study options.

Likewise, GROWTH4VA advocates more transparency in the college-search process, empowering students and parents as consumers by providing data on job placement success, graduates’ earnings, internship and work opportunities, graduation rates, net four-year cost, and student loan debt levels.

Affordable access. Without specifying where the money comes from, the GROWTH4VA platform champions increased financial aid to “enhance social mobility” for the poor, relieve the middle-class tuition squeeze, and reduce student loan debt. But Treacy minces no words: “We are asking the General Assembly to step up.”

“Our schools are at risk of pricing themselves out of the market,” he says. “We need to get the General Assembly to normalize funding.” Rather than ask for across-the-board increases in state support, GROWTH4VA recommends “incentive” funding that restores state support to institutions that restrain their tuition increases, and it advocates creating a “higher education reserve fund” — analogous to the state’s water quality fund that accumulates money when the state runs a budget surplus — to preserve a stable flow of state dollars to colleges and universities. Another idea is to tie state funding to educational and economic outcomes in exchange for giving universities more managerial flexibility.

One thing missing from the affordable-access platform: asking colleges and universities to re-think how they deliver higher education. No reforming the faculty tenure system, no pruning the ranks of administrators, no questioning the quest for prestigious faculty members who pad the payroll but do little teaching. No rethinking of athletic programs and sky-high student fees, and no halting the push for ever more luxurious food and lodging programs.

Speaking again as Virginia Tech’s rector, Treacy responded that board of visitor meetings are consumed by “raging debate” over tuition hikes. The board is acutely aware of the affordability issues. But, he adds, tuition must be weighed against other priorities. “If we hold the tuition down for students, do we short-change the university in other ways?”

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7 responses to “Making the Case for More Higher Ed Investment

  1. One curious thing though – Govt support of Higher Ed has led to well-regarded Colleges and affordable tuition in California and New York – two States that Virginia looks down it’s nose at in terms of taxes …. and “un-business-friendly” policies.

    We talk about Virginia becoming the “best” but I suspect we’re no where near to catching up with California and New York much less besting them…

    but it might be useful to compare how much California and New York colleges get in state aid compared to Virginia.

    Is true that we “under-invest” in higher ed in Virginia and that’s why tuition is not as affordable and the schools themselves are down a notch in status?

    I also – still think when you look at some of the higher ed – that some of the better ones – do not have big time sports programs.

    A few do.. but a good number do not.

  2. Smithfield? Hmm. First off, the firm is a wholly owned subsidiary of a Chinese firm, so not sure Smithfield is its ultimate headquarters. Also, Smithfield had a bad rep for hog waste pollution, animal abuse and labor issues. The man you quote was apparently hired to sweep the hog pens. But you do need to be a little more realistic in these things.

  3. While I respect these two men, and do not doubt their best intentions

    But I do not see the beef in their investment proposals, save for a quest for more easy money government giveaways. Their “arguments and proposals” seem abstract confections hanging in the air for the benefit of businesses, whether public or private institutions. They don’t seem to touch the students, who should be the primary beneficiary. If the students receive the education they deserve and we should expect from public monies, then the state, the public, and the students well earn great benefit. Otherwise the money is wasted or at best spent in highly ineffective and unfair ways.

    Unfortunately, without such assurances, such government funding for Higher Education fails to educate the vast majority of students either in terms of any verifiable results, and/or in improving the quality of the teaching they receive in the classroom or on the job, or in the amount of time and highly competent teachers devote to teaching students directly, and/or in increasing quality and substance of the subject matter being taught students.

    In short, what we need in Virginia is better teachers empowered and committed to spending vastly more of their time and our resources personally teaching great and rigorous course to willing and able students under the conditions of a teaching regime where excellence is demanded not only on the part of teachers but also on the part of students. And results are verified. And consequences are rendered for failure.

    What I see here in simply more talk and more of the same failures in educating the great majority of our students.

    • For example, if we look closely at who has been hired at UVa., and for what purposes they have been hired and at what cost since 2012, we will find that there has been a shocking decline in the teaching of students at UVa. while the costs of operating UVa. has skyrocketed. And the return on investment has plummeted.

      I challenge responsible people in the state to look into those numbers and those facts, including those hiring decisions, and what they are meant to accomplish, and come to a different conclusion from my own. The facts are there to see. No one wants to look at them, much less explain and confront them in an honest way with the public.

  4. Steve,

    I disagree that I am being snarky in a Trumpian way. Check out this link. For years, Smithfield had a really bad rap for pollution, animal treatment and labor issues. In the 1990s, the Raleigh News & Observer won a Pulitzer Prize for how huge hog farms were laying waste to eastern N.C. streams with hog waste. Smithfield got fined big time by the EPA for polluting Virginia’s Pagan River. Smithfield has been in trouble with states and foreign countries.
    I am not making this stuff up. It is true.
    According to Wikiepedia, Treacy came over from Virginia DEQ to straighten everything out. It appears that he made an impact.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smithfield_Foods

    • Do you know what it means to make an ad hominem argument? You ignore the issue and attack the person. You just did it again. None of that relates to Dennis’ opinions on higher ed, which deserve to be debated on the merits. You don’t have to sell him to me, I knew him when he was at DEQ.

      Snarky is my adjective. Comparing you to Trump is me using an ad hominem argument!

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