July 6, 2009 — Several members of the University of Virginia's Board of Visitors are spearheading a new multi-pronged campaign to equip more Virginians with college degrees, thereby creating sustainable economic growth in the Commonwealth.
"Grow by Degrees" was launched June 22 by the Virginia Business Higher Education Council. The day was marked by a whistle-stop tour of the state, with press conferences in Norfolk, Richmond and Roanoke. The council's chairman, W. Heywood Fralin, who recently ended a two-year term as U.Va. rector, spoke at each stop, outlining the urgent need for the new campaign.
A poll conducted for Grow by Degrees showed that, by an overwhelming majority, Virginians in every region, at every stage of life and of all ethnic and educational backgrounds, believe that colleges and universities play a crucial role in improving the economy.
"The people of Virginia get it," Fralin said in Roanoke, as reported by the Roanoke Times. "They understand that ... if you want to make Virginia the economic growth capital of the world, you must first make Virginia the workforce training and the educational growth capital of the world."
The issue is timely because of the upcoming election for Virginia's governor. Both major-party candidates – Republican Bob McDonnell and Democrat Creigh Deeds – espouse the expansion of job-skills training; McDonnell wants to add 100,000 college degrees over 15 years and Deeds 70,000 in the next decade.
"We look forward to working closely with them as they refine and elaborate on their plans," Fralin said in Norfolk.
An op-ed written by Fralin, CEO of Roanoke-based Medical Facilities of America, and Thomas F. Farrell II, CEO of Dominion Power, who recently completed two terms on the U.Va. Board and has since joined the board of U.Va.'s College at Wise, was published on June 22 in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, laying out the goals of Grow by Degrees.
• Virginia should commit to a 10-year program of investment designed to award a cumulative 70,000 additional degrees by 2020, particularly in the so-called STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math;
• Innovative pathways to degrees should hold down costs to those who pay tuition and taxes;
• The capacity of community colleges to focus on job-skill training should be increased;
• Policies should be enacted to enhance research and collaboration between public and private enterprises, which will create jobs and boost economic development.
• The state should increase its investment in higher education.
Fralin pointed out that per-student spending by the state of Virginia has fallen 40 percent since 2000. "Had college funding just kept pace with average general fund growth, the state would be spending $300 million more on higher education annually," he said.
According to research conducted for the Grow by Degrees campaign, by more than a three-to-one margin, Virginians believe that state support for higher education should equal at least two-thirds of the cost of education at public colleges and universities.
State funding falls far short of that informal state policy. The financial squeeze creates a boom-and-bust cycle and shifts the burden to tuition-paying families, who in turn pressure legislators to keep a lid on the price of college.
"The widespread perception is that Virginia's excellent colleges are not at risk," Fralin said. "That is simply not true."
The recession and increasing unemployment have made economic recovery and growth the central issue in the 2009 campaign, he said. "This gives us the opportunity to call attention to the close connection between higher education and economic growth," Fralin said.
The coalition comprises all of Virginia's four-year public and community colleges and several organizations, including the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, Virginia 21, Virginia Latino Higher Education Network and the Center for Rural Virginia. In addition, 75 individuals representing business and higher education – including John O. "Dubby" Wynne, retired CEO of Landmark Communications, who recently became rector of the U.Va. Board of Visitors, and several members of the board – are listed.
During the next couple of months, the Grow by Degrees coalition will meet with stakeholders and plan a Higher Education Summit, scheduled for Sept. 7-16. Organizers hope that the agenda will include addresses by McDonnell and Deeds, panel discussions on key topics and the release of further data linking education to economic growth.