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Sunday, September 8, 2013
Four years ago, a coalition of Virginia business, civic and political leaders launched a campaign to boost state funding for higher education and reverse a trend of recession-induced budget cuts that had triggered dramatic tuition increases.
The Grow By Degrees campaign, started by the Virginia Business Higher Education Council, made an economic case for sustained funding of colleges and universities and for reforms focused on access, affordability and employability.
Well organized and well connected, the campaign’s leaders knew when to strike — right in the middle of Virginia’s race for governor.
As Roanoke businessman Heywood Fralin explained last week, the higher education advocates wanted to get to the candidates “when they wanted to hear what we had to say.”
Gov. Bob McDonnell embraced the coalition’s agenda as a candidate and followed through on a campaign promise to make higher education funding a priority in his state budgets.
On McDonnell’s watch, the General Assembly has pumped $400 million of new money into state colleges and universities. Undergraduate enrollment has increased by 14,000. The average tuition and fee increases adopted in 2012 were the lowest in a decade.
Radford University President Penelope Kyle said the additional funding enabled the university to increase in-state undergraduate enrollment by more than 650 students between fall 2010 and last year, and to add about 225 students this year.
The amended state budget approved earlier this year includes more than $400,000 of additional money for need-based financial aid at Radford.
On Thursday, the coalition released an economic impact study to make its case that the state is getting a return on its investment.
The analysis by the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia concluded that Virginia’s higher education system is associated with $28.4 billion in economic activity, accounts for more than 131,000 jobs and returns $2.1 billion in state tax revenues.
Each tax dollar invested in public higher education generates $1.29 in new tax revenue, according to the study.
This should come as no surprise in a region where Virginia Tech is an economic engine and where Radford and New River Community College have significant footprints.
But these numbers should help business leaders and college presidents to press appropriators in Richmond and Virginia’s next governor to continue the progress made during McDonnell’s term. The job is far from finished.
One key legislative leader doesn’t need to be persuaded. House Majority Leader Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, carried McDonnell’s higher education legislation and used his influence on the House Appropriations Committee to fund the governor’s initiative.
“It doesn’t catch us up; I’m the first person to realize that,” Cox said in a news conference Thursday at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. “But it was a very big deal.”
Tuition and fees are increasing at a slower rate, but the average total charge for an in-state student living on campus at a four-year college this year is estimated at 46 percent of per capita income, according to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.
That measure of affordability stood at 32.2 percent in 2002, thanks to state-mandated tuition caps. Institutions have increased need-based financial aid, but college costs are straining the finances of middle-income families.
The Grow By Degrees coalition hit the road Thursday to promote its 2013 policy agenda, just as the campaign season kicks into high gear.
Virginia’s statewide candidates are paying attention. Fralin noted that both major-party candidates for governor have expressed support for the coalition’s agenda.
The 2013 agenda calls for increased financial aid targeted at middle-income students and incentive funding that would allow schools to give students the option of purchasing four-year tuition guarantees aimed at making costs more predictable.
The coalition recommends enhanced state grants to reduce tuition costs for students who attend two years of community college before transferring to a four-year school.
The agenda also includes recommendations tied to research, leadership development and job training, and incentives for degree attainment in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and health care.
But more important than any single initiative is the coalition’s push to sustain the progress that has been made since the Grow By Degrees effort launched in 2009. The leaders who initiated this campaign want legislative and statewide candidates to understand the connection between a strong higher education system and a flourishing economy.
State funding for higher education has ebbed and flowed with the economy for two decades, often taking a back seat to other priorities.
Fralin, the chairman of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council, has seen a noticeable shift in the last four years. And that shift has fueled optimism.
“I have never seen the uniform support that we have seen in the last four years for higher education,” Fralin said.
With active involvement by business, education and civic leaders, that support should not wane.
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