Financing Educational Excellence

by Timothy D. Sands

Virginia Tech President Timothy D. Sands

Like most of you, I was fortunate to study and earn my degrees at an excellent public university. In this state, we take pride in our top-ranked public universities. Indeed, check any ranking and, usually, only California, with almost five times the population of Virginia, will have more public universities identified for excellence.

However, Virginia's excellence is not derived from greater levels of investment in higher education. Virginia's funding of public colleges and universities has dropped significantly below the national average. On a per-student basis, Virginia ranks No. 41 in funding for its public research universities. Students and families pay the major share of the costs, which are continuing to shift from the state to the student. Although state policy calls for the commonwealth to pay 67 percent of a Virginian's educational cost, the commonwealth funds only 35 percent at Virginia Tech. Although every analysis shows that the return on investment to the state for higher education is extraordinary, there is nothing on the horizon to suggest the downward trend in public support will be slowed or reversed.

I know firsthand that our representatives understand the value of public higher education, but they consider it a discretionary investment. With the state's costs for "mandatory" programs increasing, any glitch in tax revenues is borne disproportionately by higher education.

Yet we are to our core a public university driven by the land-grant university ethos of educating all who are qualified regardless of background, helping communities, supporting business competitiveness, and addressing society's basic needs. That will never change. What we must change is how we pay the bills.

The declining state contribution forces a reconsideration of revenue sources, a realignment of stakeholders, a focus on efficiency and productivity, and innovation in the way we engage students, faculty, and staff in the educational mission. As we tackle this challenge on all levels, philanthropy will play a vital role in Virginia Tech's future. During our last campaign, the Hokie alumni community invested in the university like never before. Even so, our endowment does not yet provide the support necessary to maintain adequate levels of affordability, nor does it allow Virginia Tech to compete in a global marketplace for faculty talent in order to sustain our momentum as a rising research powerhouse.

Virginia Tech's endowment ranks 127th nationally. To put that in perspective, the University of Virginia's endowment, on a per-student basis, is about 10 times that of Virginia Tech's. Although we are a relative newcomer to the business of philanthropy, we cannot use that as an excuse to be complacent.

The immediate future of Virginia Tech has never been brighter. Fall 2015 undergraduate applications set a record at 22,400, an 8 percent increase over last year. As of December 2014, more than 83 percent of the Class of 2014 was employed or continuing studies, and class members reported a median starting salary of $53,000. Research expenditures surpassed $500 million for the first time as Virginia Tech moved up to No. 38 out of all public and private institutions. Our motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), has never been more relevant.

There is an opportunity now for the generosity of our friends and alumni to ensure that our momentum can be sustained well into the future. If we act now, by the time of our sesquicentennial in 2022, Virginia Tech will be both affordable to Virginia students and globally recognized as a top research and engagement university. On behalf of the university, our students, and our faculty, let me thank you in advance for what you will do to sustain and grow this gem of an institution. Your financial support, your mentorship of our students, and your engagement in our programs represent the difference between what we are today and what we could become tomorrow.

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

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