President's Message

A Land-Grant Commitment to Access

by Timothy D. Sands

Virginia Tech President Timothy D. Sands

Virginia Tech holds an enviable position today in American higher education. Our reputation is strong and still rising. Applications for admission hit all-time highs this year. Our innovative degree programs address key societal needs, and our graduates land good-paying jobs.

In various analyses of financial return on investment (ROI), we perform well. In the U.S. Department of Education's recently released "College Scorecard," Virginia Tech was ranked among the top 15 institutions with high graduation rates and high alumni salaries. Beyond ROI, the Gallup-Purdue Index gauged the well-being of Hokie graduates in five dimensions—financial, physical, community, social, and purpose—and the university's alumni truly shine. No doubt our commitment to a sense of community and a sense of purpose through Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) deserves credit.

But storm clouds are rising. While we have much to look forward to as the world begins to recognize the holistic value of a Virginia Tech education and our dissemination of new knowledge for the betterment of humankind, there is a flipside. Along the way, we have lost sight of our land-grant mission to serve "the industrial classes," as described in our founding charter, the 1862 Morrill Act. We must ensure access for academically qualified students, regardless of their ability to pay—because today, more than ever, our economy needs graduates from all backgrounds who are prepared for the 21st century.

We have studied the family income profiles of Tech undergraduates. Comparing undergraduate financial aid packages to family income, we found that we are not keeping pace with the needs of lower- and middle-income students. This illustrates the so-called middle-class squeeze, as families must increasingly cover the shortfall from reduced state support for higher education.

Whereas almost half of our graduates have no debt, 53 percent have some debt, and the debt averages almost $28,000. Although this dollar figure is slightly less than the national average, it is considerably more than many of our peers. Meanwhile, in current dollars, the state contribution toward the undergraduate education of Virginia students is half what it was per student in 2000. Yes, tuition for in-state students has risen to partially offset the loss of funds, but there is also a cultural component to this gradual transition toward an "elite" institution. Income is not the only metric for evaluating access to underserved populations, but it offers a glaring reflection of this shift in our mission.

Herein lies an important challenge for Virginia Tech if we are to remain true to the spirit and mission of land-grant universities. Near-term actions include a serious review of our academic requirements for graduation, such as whether graduation from certain programs truly merits more than 120 credit hours. Over the long-term, we must increase private scholarship support by a substantial amount. Although daunting, this challenge is one that similarly situated schools have tackled, and I am convinced that the Virginia Tech community is up to the challenge.

I hope you will join me and my colleagues at Virginia Tech as we aim to reach the next level of excellence by creating accessible pathways to education. Our very essence as a land-grant school demands it.

Timothy D. Sands, Virginia Tech's 16th president, took office on June 1, 2014.

Follow President Sands on Twitter @VTSandsman

Office of the President →