Wampler at NCI: Education supports economic development

January 12, 2012

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Higher education and economic development go hand-in-hand, according to the New College Institute’s new executive director.

“One without the other doesn’t work,” said William Wampler, a former state senator who started his job at the institute in Martinsville on Wednesday.

NCI’s future success will depend heavily on being able to provide students the education they need for jobs available in the area, so the institute and local economic developers must work together closely, Wampler said.

Funded by the state and The Harvest Foundation, NCI offers local access to higher-level courses needed to earn certain bachelor’s and master’s degrees from universities statewide. Students must take freshman- and sophomore-level courses elsewhere, such as a community college.

NCI is working with economic developers to determine degrees and courses that are needed for area jobs. Also, Wampler said he wants to find out from local schools and students what types of careers interest them.

More than 400 students have attended NCI since it opened five years ago, and about 250 have earned degrees by taking classes there. Officials have said the institute has been more successful in its first few years than they ever imagined.

Yet “there will come a day when enrollment will surge at the New College,” Wampler said, “because we will offer the courses that match the immediate needs of students” seeking jobs in the region.

“That will be the day we know we’ve truly met the challenge of educating students in this community,” he said.

NCI has the ability to attract students not only from Henry County and Martinsville, but also surrounding areas and elsewhere, he indicated.

“Students don’t care where the state line is if you’re offering them classes that make sense” to them and to help earn degrees, Wampler said.

What he hears from students and other “tuition payers,” such as parents, most often is “we want access to affordable higher education,” he said.

Because it helps area students earn degrees without having to travel long distances to universities, and therefore save on expenses such as gas and living quarters, NCI facilitates an affordable education, said Wampler.

“At the end of the day ... it’s what you can afford” that matters, he added.

The General Assembly convened Wednesday. As of that day, Wampler, who had represented the Bristol area in the state Senate since 1988, no longer was a lawmaker. He decided not to seek re-election.

On Jan. 3, NCI’s board hired Wampler to be the institute’s second executive director. He succeeds Barry Dorsey, who recently retired but is consulting for the private Carlisle School near Axton.

Wampler served on Senate finance and education panels and was a staunch supporter of NCI, according to institute officials.

For the past two years, he was on Gov. Bob McDonnell’s Higher Education Commission with lawmakers, business leaders and academicians statewide.

McDonnell’s two-year budget proposal, which lawmakers will mull, includes more than $200 million in extra funds for colleges and universities. However, it essentially keeps NCI level-funded.

NCI is receiving $1,464,107 in state funds for the current fiscal year. That amount is proposed to rise to $1,471,039 for fiscal 2013, which will start July 1, and to $1,471,055 the next year, according to Associate Director Leanna Blevins and Finance Director Christina Reed.

Officials did not know the reason for the $16 increase in fiscal 2014.

Wampler said he understands most of the higher education funding increase is intended for universities. He is not complaining, though. That money could help them offer new initiatives such as programs at NCI, he said.

Beginning this fall, NCI will partner with three universities — Radford, Virginia State and Virginia Commonwealth — to offer all NCI’s academic programs.

“NCI, through its (university) partners, will find ways to jump start” the governor’s goal for colleges and universities to bestow 100,000 degrees during the next 10 years, he noted.

Ultimately, NCI’s goal is to become a branch campus of a public university. Efforts toward that goal will continue, although in tough economic times it could be hard to persuade a university to take on a branch campus due to expenses involved, Wampler said.

As more and more jobs require higher levels of skills, NCI will play a crucial role in preparing people for those jobs, according to Wampler.

For that reason, continuing to fund the institute has widespread support in the General Assembly, he said.

“When they think of NCI,” Wampler said, lawmakers “think of it as being a powerful tool to reverse the trend” of unemployment.

He does not perceive any lack of support for NCI among any of his former legislative colleagues. But he admitted that he thinks a few lawmakers — he did not name them — need to become better educated about economic struggles in the region and “the difference that a well-educated work force can make” in attracting jobs.

“That’s the story we need to tell,” Wampler said. Basically, “we are the newest college. We’re the hope for a brighter day in terms of (having) an educated work force.”


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