Creating a new college: Institute's flexibility may spell success

March 2, 2006

Martinsville Bulletin Staff Writer

When the proposed New College Institute opens its doors to area residents, it will lack the regal traditions, ivy-strewn walls and sweeping quadrangles of the colleges and universities that will teach its classes.

But the directors of similar, education center-style institutions in the state say the New College will have one important advantage over its established, stand-alone counterparts -- flexibility.

Since 1986, Virginia has opened higher education centers in South Boston, Abingdon and Roanoke, each of which offers students a variety of opportunities through visiting teacher programs established with public and private colleges and universities throughout the state.

While all three have stories that bode well for the future of the New College -- since opening, each has increased attendance and expanded educational offerings -- the institution most similar to the one proposed for Henry County-Martinsville and the most indicative of its immediate potential may be the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center (SWVHEC) in Abingdon.

Like the proposal for the New College Institute, SWVHEC grew out of a need to provide area residents with education and training in the face of the decline of the region's economic backbone, such as manufacturing, coal mining and tobacco farming.

Like Henry County and Martinsville, which a recent State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) report recently identified as lacking a "culture of college attendance," SWVHEC has had to fight an uphill battle in convincing the local population of the role education can and must play in the region's economic revival.

And like what New College proponents hope they can accomplish here, SWVHEC has made significant inroads in meeting those goals since it opened its doors six years ago, said Executive Director Rachael Fowlks.

Established in 1998 on the campus of Virginia Highlands Community College, SWVHEC started with partnerships with three institutions and now offers its 2,400 students the last two years of some 60 undergraduate and graduate programs through nine colleges and universities.

Much of that success, Fowlks said, is due to the educational model upon which the center is based. Because SWVHEC utilizes proven programs through established institutions, she said it has the flexibility necessary to meet the immediate needs of area residents and businesses.

For instance, after several local hospitals contacted the center indicating a need for certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNA), Fowlks said that within a year she was able to begin a CRNA program through Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).

"If I had to start from scratch, hire faculty, go through SCHEV to get (the program) approved -- we're talking five years," Fowlks said. "This way, we do the program for three, four or five cycles, supply what we need and then replace it with another program ... The flexibility to meet workforce demands is really great."

And since many of the center's programs are specifically designed to meet the needs of area employers, students do not have to leave Southwest Virginia to find jobs where they can use their education.

"We feel like our program keeps the most educated residents in the area," Fowlks said.

That, she said, makes the region more attractive to relocating companies, helping to further economic growth and to foster an appreciation of higher education.

"It's a slow process," she said. "It's not glitzy, but it makes a difference over time."

But while SWVHEC can provide an example of just how effective a higher education center can be, if the New College Institute is to have a similar impact in Henry County and Martinsville, Fowlks said it must tailor its structure and offerings to the area's particular needs and resources.

That means not only taking advantage of Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC), where administrators have pledged to help the proposed college in any way possible, but also working in conjunction with Southside's other public entities, including Danville's Institute for Advanced Learning (IAL) and South Boston's Southern Virginia Higher Education Center (SVHEC), said SVHEC executive director Ted Bennett.

The result, said Bennett, could be a unique multi-site Southside university that plays upon the strengths of the institutions already working in those three communities, with the New College focusing on baccalaureate degrees, the IAL offering graduate and research opportunities and SVHEC working with public school systems throughout the region to bolster appreciation for higher education.

"We shouldn't be duplicating (programs). We should try to prove that by working together, we can effect the efficiency for the delivery of post-secondary education," said Bennett.

Whether the New College eventually adopts Bennett's proposal, the idea is indicative of what Dr. Barry Dorsey, executive director of the New College Institute's planning commission, said is at the heart of the higher education center model.

"One of the beauties of higher ed centers" is their ability to meet the community's needs, said Dorsey. "And that comes about because of flexibility."


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