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G. Gilmer Minor III and Dennis H. Treacy: Higher education in Virginia tunes up economic growth

G. Gilmer Minor III and Dennis H. Treacy: Higher education in Virginia tunes up economic growth
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By G. Gilmer Minor III and Dennis H. Treacy

Tomorrow, the Virginia Business Higher Education Council will launch a 100-day campaign to promote reform and reinvestment in our commonwealth’s top-ranked higher education system.

The program, called GROWTH4VA, has a three-fold purpose: to help grow the Virginia economy, expand access to education and job opportunities for all Virginians, and regain Virginia’s No. 1 ranking for business.

Why are leaders of Virginia’s businesses, large and small, so committed to supporting and strengthening our higher education system?

One major reason is the unparalleled return on investment for our commonwealth and its citizens.

According to the latest analysis, 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.

Each dollar spent on Virginia’s public higher education system produces $21 in economic output and over time returns $1.92 to the state treasury — an investment that more than pays for itself.

For individual Virginians, a college degree or industry-recognized credential is indispensable in the New Economy. Since the recessions of the past decade, the percentage of U.S. jobs requiring a college degree has climbed sharply, and college graduates today on average earn more than twice what those without degrees earn.


But there is another major reason for the Virginia business community’s commitment to our higher education system: We Virginians are trustees of a unique asset.

Our diverse system of public and private colleges, universities, and community colleges in Virginia is the nation’s best. Indeed, the cascade of top national rankings for quality, value, and return on investment is so constant that we easily could take our schools’ standout status for granted.

Over the past decade, Virginia’s public four-year colleges and universities have met the objectives of state policymakers by increasing enrollment sharply and broadening the base of Virginia students served. At the same time, they have improved student outcomes, achieving the second-highest graduation rates in the country.

As stewards of tax and tuition dollars, our higher education institutions have performed remarkably well. They have produced these top rankings while generally spending the same or less per student — and often much less — than what their peer institutions spend.

While Virginia ranks at the top for higher education results, we rank near the bottom among the states — 44th in 2015 — in per-student state support.

At a time when it has become fashionable in some circles to attack our major institutions, including higher education, Virginians take a different view. In a recent poll, large majorities across the political spectrum expressed the opinion that our Virginia higher education system is a valuable public asset, is well run, and is a sound place to invest public dollars.

Virginians are proud of our great schools and are eager to send their sons and daughters there for a top-quality education.

Our elected leaders in both parties share this supportive view.

Over the past decade, our General Assembly and governors have worked together to expand and modernize campus infrastructure, reverse the funding cuts forced by recent recessions, and introduce reforms that enhance performance and economic impact throughout the higher education system.They have worked in partnership with business and higher education leaders to chart a long-term course that will make Virginia the best educated state, preparing Virginians for the top jobs of the 21st century.

All this, however, is not enough.


The business community is engaged anew on higher education, working closely with our partners on college campuses, because our commonwealth faces major challenges.

Economic growth is too slow, and business rankings have slipped. Federal funding that has long fueled our economy is slackening.

While unemployment is low, too many high-paying jobs and bright young people are leaving our state. Virginia business growth is stunted by the inability to find properly trained workers. Virginia families find it harder and harder to afford the opportunity that a college degree or industry-recognized credential provides. And students often enter the workforce saddled with significant debt.

As in every field, business models in higher education are changing, making reform, innovation, and increased efficiency essential. Our Virginia colleges, universities, and community colleges have been working hard to adapt and improve, and they will have to work even harder and smarter in the future.

State policy, likewise, will need to evolve, with regulatory and funding decisions becoming more strategic, predictable, and focused on the outcomes that matter most to students and the Virginia economy.

Indeed, the need for positive change is the reason for the “4” in GROWTH4VA.

During the next 100 days, we will be discussing four key strategies to strengthen our standout higher education system and to increase its impact on economic opportunity for all Virginians.

Our colleges, universities, and community colleges in Virginia are stepping up to help achieve these goals, and we in the business community will be stepping up with them. We will be offering practical policies and creative ideas focused on these four strategies:

  • making Virginia the top state for talent;
  • gaining recognition 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. The business community is especially pleased that both major-party candidates for governor have offered detailed, forward-looking proposals that can help achieve the goals we have outlined.

In the final analysis, realizing Virginia’s full potential for growth and opportunity is not just the business of business — it is the business of every Virginian.

So visit growth4va.com, join our GROWTH4VA coalition, and let your voice be heard. We will keep you informed of our progress.

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.

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