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A boost for higher ed?
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A boost for higher ed?

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Students wave to their family members during the graduation ceremonies for the College of Arts and Sciences on May 22 at the University of Virginia. Students processed down the Lawn and across campus with commencement ceremonies at Scott Stadium.

As the streets of their quiet communities bustled with activity again, it was clear to year-round residents of Virginia’s college and university towns that students had returned for another semester.

So, let’s get these kids educated. That amounts to roughly a quarter million students — mostly young, hopeful and ready — attending Virginia’s four-year institutions and another 210,000 enrolled in the state community college system.

It’s no small doing. It’s changing, too. Many of Virginia’s higher learning institutions shed prior definitional restraints and have become not just centers of academic inquiry and instruction, but important venues of economic power, growth and employment.

Policy has to be shaped with this reality at the forefront. Reform, amend and rearrange, as justified, but do so responsibly. Discourage populist nonsense.

There are, of course, short-term immediate challenges. Getting through the COVID-19 pandemic — vaccinations, variants — remains difficult. Adjustments are underway.

At least, for the most part, instruction has returned to more familiar classroom, lecture hall and laboratory settings. That constitutes progress.

Progress in a broader, long-term sense — making sure the Virginia system continues to produce the intended results (employable, enlightened graduates, set loose upon the land) — relies upon the good will and labor of many participants and vast resources.

Resources. Ah, yes. Who bears the burden? How does it get spread around? What will it take to make Virginia schools better than ever?

A word of encouragement (on balance) from the charts of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s 2020-2021 “Almanac.”

It looks daunting at first. The most-expensive four-year public institution for in-state costs in 2019-20? The College of William and Mary. The third-most expensive for out-of-state costs? The University of Virginia.

But then you check the colleges “with the best 4-year graduations rates in 2018.”

Of “highly residential institutions? (These are the Chronicle’s classifications.) The College of William and Mary. Of “primarily residential” institutions? The University of Virginia.

They are expensive, in relative terms, but getting the job done. Top performing schools in the country on that score. Reason for pride.

“Performance” of course has many definitions. You have to decide what you want. William and Mary has higher graduation rates and lower loan default rates than any institution in Florida, for example, and does so on much less state appropriation per student.

It’s all a product of choices — and the choices evolve, based on present exigencies. You just don’t get to ignore them.

Which was roughly the message from the Virginia Business Higher Education Council (VBHEC) on Thursday as it launched its Growth4VA campaign.

There will be opportunities to say more on this, but the gist of the memo from this “statewide coalition of business, education and community leaders and grassroots supporters” is that Virginia’s elected leaders should “seize a once-in-generations chance to invest in higher education.”

This coalition — which has labored well in years past to get sensible, progressive things done — would see “transformational investments” made to “create affordable talent pathways” and “position Virginia as the nation’s talent-to-opportunity leader.”

Doing so, it says, will expand “job and career options for young and adult Virginians and [enhance] the competitive economic advantage Virginia gains from having a top-tier higher education system.”

“Our goal is to empower Virginians of all races, regions, backgrounds, and circumstances to access well-paying jobs and careers in a growing and diversifying Virginia economy,” said VBHEC chair Dennis H. Treacy, Senior Counsel of ReedSmith LLP.

This entails internships and “valuable work-based experience,” the essential basis for employment.

“The dual focus on opportunity for individual Virginians and on strengthening the state’s workforce and economy is very intentional,” says Dr. Makola Abdullah, president of Virginia State University, chair of the Council of Presidents, and a member of VBHEC’s governing board.

OK, but here’s the core issue — the political nut of it all: Neighboring states are beating Virginia’s brains out by investing more on a per-student basis.

That has to change and, to its ever-lasting credit, the Virginia Business Higher Education Council has advanced a navigation chart.

The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot

and (Newport News) Daily Press

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