January 11, 2006
By MATTHEW McCORMICK
Bulletin Staff Writer
A report issued Tuesday by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) supports efforts to establish a program in Martinsville and Henry County that would grant four-year college degrees.
Citing economic difficulties, low educational attainment and lack of a strong culture of college attendance, the report identified a significant need for four-year degrees in the area and recommended partnerships with established colleges and universities to meet that demand in the short term.
If those programs are successful, the report stated that they could, over a number of years, develop into independent institutions.
"This partnership model does not create a new higher education institution, but rather creates a local administrative structure that identifies student demand for four-year degree programs, receives state funding and issues Requests for Proposals to existing two- and four-year public and private institutions to provide those programs 'on-the-ground,'" the report stated.
The report was a welcome development for supporters of the New College Institute (NCI), which recently announced plans to use that type of collaboration to possibly begin offering classes in 2007.
"I think that there is starting to be convergence between the SCHEV view of the world and the New College," said Harry Cerrino, executive director of The Harvest Foundation, which has pledged $50 million in matching funds toward the creation of the college. "That's what we hoped would happen. I think this is a great start."
Del. Ward Armstrong, D-Collinsville, who is sponsoring legislation in the House that would create the NCI in the Martinsville and Henry County area, agreed.
"I think (the report) helps the college in its effort," Armstrong said. "Clearly, opposition to the college would not have been helpful. So I'm pleased that they reached a position that was compatible with what we are trying to do."
The report, which was begun in early 2005 to make recommendations to meet the demand for higher education in Southside, also recommended that Danville and South Boston develop institutional partnerships to allow those localities to offer four-year degrees.
That dispersed, collaborative model will create a cost-effective way to provide all of Southside with degree opportunities, which the report estimates will cost $2 million to $4 million a year to accommodate 300 new students annually.
The model also will allow each community to cater to local educational demands and use institutions already serving area residents, according to the report.
In Martinsville, that would mean taking advantage of the campus of Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC) which, with an excess capacity of 17,500 square feet, could accommodate an additional 600 students per year, the report stated.
The report also recommended that the area should use PHCC's proposed state-of-the-art health/technology facility and focus on offering health-related programs. That would prepare students for the nearly 1,200 health-related jobs that the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) estimates will be created in Patrick, Henry and Pittsylvania counties between 2002 and 2012, the report recommended.
Other programs the report recommended for Martinsville include teacher education and specialized business programs, such as general finance and management information systems, which will train students for fields that the VEC projects will bring another 1,348 jobs to the area by 2012.
At each site, the report urged educators to emphasize experiential learning, which puts classroom learning into practice and which may attract students who otherwise might not see the relevance of academic programs.
While such an approach may increase appreciation of higher education in Southside, if the region is to create a "culture of college attendance" it must begin much earlier, the report stated.
Through such programs as robotics teams and GEAR UP/ACCESS Virginia, which encourages college attendance through
workshop sessions that discuss everything from financial aid to career options, the report recommended that localities reach out to parents and students in kindergarten through high school to "promote enthusiasm for continued education."
In the end, the report points out that such efforts may result in a significant boost to the region's economy because as the Southside work force becomes more educated, the area will become more and more attractive to businesses.
But the report warned that college attendance alone cannot solve Southside's economic woes.
"All groups connected with the assessment acknowledged that one institution, or a series of four-year degree granting programs, could not single-handedly reform a region economically," the report stated.
Given that conclusion, the SCHEV report called for the development of a comprehensive Southside economic development plan that includes collaboration with area community colleges, planning district commissions, local and regional economic development organizations and local businesses and industries.
For now, though, area residents must focus on the fight at hand, said Armstrong.
"This (report) is another step in a very long journey," he said. "I don't want people to get the impression that this New College proposal is a done deal -- it is not. It still has to go through the General Assembly and it is very important the community stay behind it and let members of the General Assembly know that they want it."
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