Virginia Tech Magazine
Virginia Tech

Charting Virginia's higher education future


Burruss Hall at Virginia Tech
The president of a large university regularly juggles myriad projects, issues, constituency and faculty concerns, funding problems, legislative requests, student and donor meetings, and an array of similar activities. During these hectic days, I am driven by and comforted by a core outcome of higher education—the personal and economic opportunities afforded to our students.

Thus, I am pleased that the recently released report from the Virginia Governor's Commission on Higher Education Reform, Innovation, and Investment features three major thrusts: economic opportunity, affordable access, and reform-based investments. Most importantly, the governor has called for an additional 100,000 college degrees in Virginia over the next 15 years. This concept, first proposed by the Virginia Business Higher Education Council's Grow By Degrees program, seeks to improve economic development and quality of life across Virginia.

The commission's major recommendations, which dovetail with Virginia Tech's traditional strengths, call for investing in high-demand STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) degrees, funding academic research, and linking state economic development goals to higher education incentives. Virginia Tech's land-grant heritage is predicated on just such goals. Our institutional DNA and track record are well suited to help the commonwealth expand job growth and strengthen companies and communities.

During the early part of this decade, Virginia Tech worked with sister universities to develop direct state investments in academic research. The resulting $22 million investment in Virginia Tech helped us expand R&D expenditures more quickly than all but four universities in the nation during the past five years. Academic research is about more than dollars, however; it is about solving problems or generating new ideas and technologies to spur economic development. By any measure, our past performance is impressive on both counts.

The governor's commission also underscores the sound concepts of Virginia's higher education "restructuring" in 2006—state legislation delegating enumerated powers and limited autonomy to selected Virginia universities. Virginia Tech is one of four schools with such authority, a designation that has enabled our institution to make progress even as state support has plunged.

"Reform-based investments" include institutional incentive funding for increasing STEM degrees, graduation rates, or facility utilization. The commission also proposes "portable," direct student funding, in which each Virginia student is guaranteed a certain amount of state funding added to the state's share of the cost of education. Other incremental state funding will be provided for addressing selected state priorities, such as STEM education or economic development goals.

The third leg of the commission's plan, ensuring affordable access to higher education, is essential in creating those gateways of economic and personal opportunity and therefore is given high priority. We strongly believe that the state must increase financial aid, even when it is reducing appropriations for its colleges and universities. At Virginia Tech, we know that tuition has risen as state support has dropped, which is why we have committed to increasing university-supported financial aid by at least $1 million per year. We've increased university aid from about $1 million in 2000 to more than $12 million this year. Grants, scholarships, and waivers have grown from $119 million to $159 million in just the last three years. Overall, financial aid at Virginia Tech now exceeds $359 million.

This plan suggests a major reworking of the funding model and policies affecting Virginia higher education. Gov. Bob McDonnell informed the commission that a "new compact between the state and our leaders in higher education" will refocus efforts to boost economic development. Del. Kirk Cox, vice chairman of the commission, said, "It's clear that the model won't be fully funded initially, but incrementally as the economy recovers." After the release of preliminary recommendations, commission member Sen. William Wampler suggested that McDonnell make higher education funding a top priority; otherwise, the system would be "a high-performing vehicle that doesn't have any fuel."

We have been arguing exactly that position for many years.


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Winter 2010-11
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