Another viewpoint: Spilman and Ryder

March 27, 2011

The evidence is clear: The more education people have, the more likely they and their families are to prosper. And communities with greater numbers of educated residents survive tough economic times better than those where university degrees are scarce.

Having ready access to a local, four-year university education will make all the difference in our region’s future prosperity. Many people in our region have completed some college courses but don’t have the time or means to travel to the nearest state university and complete their degrees. And for our high school and younger students, the lack of a local university reduces their chances of succeeding in a future that will pose ever-greater demands for advanced education and training. How are we going to meet the urgent need for higher education in our region?

If you take a look at a map of Virginia’s public colleges and universities, you will find schools located up and down the Tidewater, sprinkled across the state’s midsection — Richmond, Charlottesville, Harrisonburg — and on to points north and west. But when it comes to central Southern Virginia, we are what you might call a higher-education desert, lacking an accredited, state-supported university, which offers the best hope for most people who want to earn bachelor’s degrees.

Decades ago, people here were too busy earning good money in tobacco and the factories to worry about a future in which earning a paycheck would hinge on having a university degree. Over time, there was growing concern about the lack of a nearby four-year public university, but there was never enough local and state support to build a school here. Now, in 2011, with traditional manufacturing continuing to plummet and high technology driving economic growth, the need for local access to higher education is dire.

No one here needs to be reminded that last year, Martinsville’s unemployment spiked above 20 percent. That, combined with Henry County’s 14 percent unemployment, underscores the need for a local, affordable university. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that people with college degrees earn more and suffer less unemployment. In 2009, joblessness for people with bachelor’s degrees averaged 5.2 percent, but among high school graduates, that rate jumped to 9.7 percent.

To move our region’s economy forward, we will need a more educated work force. We began to address this matter with the opening of the New College Institute in 2006, a state-supported higher education center in Martinsville. Through partnerships with several Virginia universities, people are now locally completing bachelor’s degrees and even earning master’s degrees. What NCI has accomplished in such a short period of time — with its 400-plus students and 135 graduates — has created an oasis in our desert. Yet to fully unleash the power of higher education, and what it can do for a community, NCI will need to expand its programs many times over.

When the New College 2012 Commission — a blue-ribbon panel convened by the Harvest Foundation of the Piedmont — studied the situation, they unanimously recommended that the NCI be developed into a branch campus of one of Virginia’s publicly supported universities. Such a move would allow NCI to leverage its resources with those of a large university’s academic and research programs, partnerships with government and industry and fundraising apparatus.

Yet, as much sense as this all makes, we know that getting a green light from state government will require support in the form of legislative votes and signed contracts with a partner school. And while we have no crystal ball to predict what’s in store, we can share that there is greater realization of how a local university would transform the landscape.

Research has shown that every dollar invested in Virginia’s public higher education system yields $13 in increased economic output. Part of this is due to increased retail and demand for housing. Over time, envision students buying lattés and computers, renting apartments and getting haircuts.

Another benefit, more far reaching in scope, comes from being able to attract companies looking for an adequately educated pool of workers. The fact that a high school diploma holder averages $626 a week, while a four-year university graduate averages $1,025 per week, offers compelling evidence of the need to develop our work force to meet the demands of today’s employers.

Gov. Robert McDonnell clearly understands the link between education and prosperity. His higher education initiative includes the goal of awarding an additional 100,000 degrees over the next 15 years. A university branch campus here would undoubtedly support this ambitious effort.

No place needs investment in higher education as much as we do here. A revitalized region with its own strong economic engine, with the capacity to educate people, especially those who have previously been left out of the traditional route to a degree, will provide significant economic benefits to Virginia.

Fortunately, the possibility of partnering with the NCI and our region to develop a university branch campus is proving to be an intriguing prospect for many Virginia universities. Thus far, we’ve had enthusiastic responses from potential partner schools and have answered many detailed questions about turning this concept into reality.

As we move forward with this initiative, we are heartened by the growing realization that officials beyond Southern Virginia are recognizing that bringing a branch campus here, where we have lacked access to such a critical resource for so long, will generate benefits far beyond our region.

Robert H. Spilman Jr., chairman of the board, New College Institute

E. Larry Ryder, chairman of the board, The Harvest Foundation


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