Webb sees value in NCI becoming four-year school

May 9, 2010

Democratic U.S. Sen. Jim Webb on Friday said he sees the value of turning the New College Institute (NCI) in Martinsville into a university.

But he currently does not know what Congress can do to help the institute evolve along that line.

NCI is “an interesting concept,” Webb said after touring the institute uptown during a visit to Henry County and Martinsville.

When asked if he thinks NCI should become a four-year institution, he said, “I hope so.”

“Clearly it’s of value to have four-year educational institutions here” to help rejuvenate the area’s economy, Webb said.

Referring to Congress, Webb said “clearly we have a role” in supporting the development of NCI.

However, he said he wants to see findings of a commission that will examine NCI’s progress before trying to determine how the federal government might be able to help the institute evolve.

Current and former students told Webb they might not have been able to earn a college degree if it had not been for NCI. They also urged him to do what he can to help the community attract companies that will bring jobs.

“I’m getting lobbied hard,” Webb said, laughing, while talking with Del. Ward Armstrong, D-Collinsville, who briefly visited with the senator during the tour. Armstrong, the House minority leader, is a member of NCI’s board.

NCI is a state-supported school that provides local access to courses needed to earn certain bachelor’s and master’s degrees conferred by universities across Virginia. Students pursuing bachelor’s degrees must have taken their first two years of courses at a community college or another school.

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) is expected to decide in 2012 whether NCI should remain in its current form, evolve into a university or become a branch campus of an existing university.

The Harvest Foundation, which matches state funds the institute receives, set up a commission of business, government and higher education leaders that will examine NCI’s progress and recommend options for its future.

The New College 2012 Commission is headed by John Casteen, who soon will retire after two decades as president of the University of Virginia, and Eugene Trani, an NCI board member who retired last year after serving as Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) president for 20 years.

In December, the commission will issue a report culminating its work, officials have said.

NCI has achieved in four years the success that state officials had hoped it would achieve in six, Executive Director Barry Dorsey told Webb.

Seventeen degree programs now are offered, and about 400 students are enrolled in those programs, Dorsey said. Also, 135 students have received degrees through the institute since it opened in 2006, he said.

“That’s pretty phenomenal,” he added.

Webb asked Dorsey what he thinks should be the “ideal endpoint” for NCI.

Dorsey replied that a stand-alone, four-year institution is what local leaders are pushing for, but it is “hard to tell” whether NCI will become that because of the state’s financial situation. Becoming a branch campus of an existing university would be a suitable alternative, he indicated.

He also voiced the possibility of finding “special ways we can fit into” the state’s higher education system to fill special needs.

An example would be evolving into a university that specializes in serving students beyond the traditional college ages of 18 to 24, he noted, adding that “the adult market is the underserved market” in the nation in terms of collegiate education.

Most of NCI’s students are older than 24, although more and more younger ones are attending, institute officials have said.

Dorsey said a public university is needed locally because only 9.4 percent of adults in the Henry County-Martinsville area have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher degree. That is much less than the 30 percent statewide average.

Many area residents are seeking some type of retraining to find new jobs, NCI alumnus Glen Hairston told Webb.

But “we can’t go to a traditional campus (elsewhere) and take our families with us,” Hairston said.

Another former student, April Haynes, said being able to attend classes close to home is what enabled her to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Retired Martinsville police investigator Marshall Farley, who is pursuing a degree through NCI, said students feel fortunate to be able to attend the institute, and “I try to tell everybody about it” wherever he goes.

While at NCI, Webb attended a meeting with Harvest officials and local business leaders. The meeting was not open to the public so participants could have “a frank discussion ... about community needs,” said Jessica Smith, a spokesman for the congressman.

A release from Webb’s office late Friday said the senator has asked for federal funds for NCI. But he did not say anything about that while visiting the institute, and Smith could not be reached after the visit for comment.

Before visiting the institute, Webb toured Applied Felts’ plant on College Drive near Collinsville and met with officials of the Virginia’s Philpott Manufacturing Extension Partnership (VPMEP).

Applied Felts makes pipe liners out of felt. It has about 130 employees.

VPMEP promotes economic growth by enhancing the competitiveness of small- and medium-sized manufacturers, information online shows. It and Applied Felts have worked together to help maintain industrial and manufacturing jobs locally, Webb said.

“I have been a big supporter of this concept, where high-quality advisors help ... companies compete nationally,” he said.

Noting Martinsville’s unemployment rate of more than 20 percent, he said that he and other members of Congress want to help the community boost its economy.

He specifically mentioned was that area companies could benefit from some defense contracts.

“I feel a great sense of responsibility and obligation” to help bring jobs to the area, Webb said. “This part of Virginia is on my mind every day.”


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