By Deborah Petrine

Petrine is the president and chief executive officer of Commonwealth Care of Roanoke, Inc., and is a former rector of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors.

The success story that is Virginia’s system of higher education is the envy of virtually every other state in the country. The Amazon HQ2 announcement and the 2019 CNBC state business ranking, which named Virginia the best state in the country for business, each validate the compelling role higher education plays as a driver for business recruitment and retention.

Our state’s higher education institutions also are answering demands to be more efficient with taxpayer resources. Savings created by increasing efficiency, reinvested into high priority areas, add significant long-term value to the degrees awarded to graduates of our state’s premier institutions. Meeting employers’ workforce needs is a tangible commitment to wise stewardship of taxpayer and tuition dollars.

Other influential observers outside Virginia are noticing that commitment and Virginia’s successes.

SmartAsset.com has ranked Virginia’s system of colleges and universities as the best state for higher education in the country for three years running, highlighting the system’s consistently high rankings for quality, value and return on investment. These direct measures of efficiency demonstrate that college affordability and long-term degree value in Virginia are inextricably linked.

A study by Lumina Strategy Labs in partnership with Virginia’s State Council of Higher Education highlights just how efficient Virginia’s higher education system is when compared to other states.

The study found that Virginia’s higher education system has lower degree completion costs than many other states, and total degree completion costs are trending downward. Degree completion costs in Virginia are lower than the national average, lower than states outside our region which resemble Virginia and lower, on average, compared to our closest geographic competitors Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee and Pennsylvania.

More importantly to tuition-paying parents, the total cost per degree year in Virginia declined over the past decade of 2008-2018.

During my tenure as a Board of Visitors’ Member at Virginia Tech, several initiatives have dramatically increased administrative and educational efficiency, reducing the overall cost of education. A more recent initiative, as an example, demonstrates that Virginia Tech has heard the legislative clarion call to find ways to be better stewards of the taxpayers’ money.

Virginia Tech is embarking on a broad university-wide efficiency initiative it is calling the Institutional Excellence Roadmap. The university is seeking to more effectively measure the value of the University’s many projects, programs and activities it offers with the practical goal of building a reliable Return on Investment model.

This roadmap will guide the ways Virginia Tech can change to more effectively and efficiently use its people, facilities, and technology to better align with the mission of the university and the people, partners and audiences it serves. This is a HUGE undertaking. But businesses, including the one I own and manage, do it all the time.

Virginia Tech has decided to establish a portfolio management approach to this work, breaking items into programs and specific projects which might not now even be aligned. The university’s Senior Leaders see the advantage of eliminating silos and boundaries across their areas, which will encourage creative thinking while building accountability into the final products. A very intentional employee engagement component to this process will help assure that all employees feel empowered to identify opportunities for improved efficiency.

This kind of systemic and systematic process analysis will allow Virginia Tech to identify and document barriers, duplications and redundancies which decrease efficiency and productivity.

A very specific opportunity to improve productivity has been identified by the faculty through the Faculty Senate. The number of unproductive and seemingly unrelated “administrative burdens” which distract from Faculty’s primary responsibilities of teaching, research and outreach can have a very real impact on the productivity of one of Virginia Tech’s most valuable assets: its faculty. Enabling world class faculty and researchers to do more of what they do best is the essence of “Value-Added” in an educational context.

By the very nature of their size and visibility, universities are inviting targets for criticism of their spending priorities. Such criticism may go with the territory, but I can assure you that every College President with whom I’ve interacted is acutely aware of the need for the universities they lead to become even more effective stewards of the taxpayer’s money. Virginia Tech’s President certainly is.

Virginia’s public universities continue to be one of the Commonwealth’s most vital business assets, and as improved university efficiencies create more affordability and higher value for tuition-paying students, the state will become an even greater Commonwealth of Opportunity for all its citizens.

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