The Best Educated State: Virginia’s Workforce Improvement Plan

November 2, 2017 / Current News

By Jessica Sabbath, Virginia Business

Officials at Piedmont Virginia Community College (PVCC) knew something needed to change.

A large percentage of students at the Charlottesville college were not finishing degrees, a common issue across the country at community colleges, which traditionally serve part-time, older and first-generation college students. “We held a college-wide series of town hall meetings,” Frank Friedman, president of PVCC, says of the initiative started three years ago. “We were not satisfied with the percentage of our students who were graduating.”

As a result, PVCC launched a Student Success program in 2015, providing mandatory orientation and advising to help students navigate their educational pathways.  The college beefed up its advising staff and started a mentoring program for new students. “This was a concerted effort involving literally the entire faculty and staff to develop interventions to help our students succeed without lowering any of our standards,” says Friedman.

Since the start of the program, the number of graduates has soared. During the 2014-15 school year, 630 students earned degrees or certificates. In the most recent year, that number grew to 977. The numbers are especially impressive considering enrollment at community colleges has fallen as the economy has revived following the Great Recession. During the past three years, PVCC’s enrollment dipped about 1 percent.

Initiatives like these will play a vital role in Virginia’s ambitious push to become the best-educated state in the nation by 2030. That goal could require raising the percentage of Virginia’s working-age population (25-64) with at least a two-year degree or a workplace credential from 51 to 70 percent, according to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV).

The business community is firmly behind the initiative. In recent years, economic growth has slowed, federal spending has declined, and Virginia’s ranking as a top state for business has dropped. Executives see a large pool of skilled and educated workers as vital to the commonwealth’s economy.

The Virginia Business Higher Education Council (VBHEC), a group of business leaders and public university officials, launched a 100-day campaign, Growth4VA, in September to encourage reinvestment in and restructuring of the state’s higher education system. “The 21st century clearly is a knowledge-based economy,” says Heywood Fralin, SCHEV’s chairman. Also a member of the VBHEC, Fralin is chairman of Roanoke-based Medical Facilities of America, which operates nursing facilities in Virginia and North Carolina. “[The modern workplace] requires significantly better training in the areas of technology and the STEM areas.”

A 2016 report from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce says 99 percent of new U.S. jobs created since the Great Recession required some form of postsecondary credential or degree. Only 80,000 of the 11.6 million new jobs required a high school diploma or less education. “If we’re the best-educated state, we are likely to be the state with the best economic development,” says Fralin, “and we’re likely to be the best state in which to do business.”

The Virginia Plan
Becoming the most-educated state is an ambitious proposal, especially as college tuition continues to rise and changing demographics create challenges. (See chart on 2017-18 tuition and fees.)

The commonwealth’s strategy is detailed in its Virginia Plan for Higher Education. The Virginia Plan, the result of almost two years of work by SCHEV and an outside consultant, was implemented in late 2015.

It has goals similar to Virginia’s Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2011, known informally as the Top Jobs Act. That legislation sought to increase postsecondary degrees and credentials by 100,000 by 2025 while giving colleges and universities incentives to provide more degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

The Virginia Plan provides a framework on how the commonwealth can become “the best-educated state” by 2030. It includes targets such as raising degree completion to a total of 1.5 million awards, increasing research expenditures by 30 percent and improving the affordability of higher education.

Currently Virginia ranks sixth highest among the states for percentage of working-age adults with a degree or credential (See chart). About 51 percent of Virginia’s working-age adults currently meet that standard, according to the Lumina Foundation, an Indianapolis-based foundation whose goal is to make postsecondary education more available. “As I look across the country, the leadership from the Virginia higher education council, governor’s office and community college system, their alignment around growing attainment is something we point people towards and say, ‘Hey, look at what Virginia is doing,’” says Scott Jenkins, strategy director at Lumina. “So Virginia is doing a lot of the right things and by setting a high attainment goal, they’re definitely putting a marker down that says, ‘This is where we want to go.’” He notes that no other state has created a higher attainment goal.

SCHEV estimates that to reach the “best-educated” status, educational attainment among working-age adults will need to increase to 70 percent. That would include 60 percent with two- or four-year degrees and 10 percent with postsecondary credentials. “You do that through a combination of producing your own and having a vibrant economy that attracts well-educated people to your state,” says Peter Blake, director of SCHEV.

So far, the commonwealth has made some steady gains. A new workforce grant program is helping workers earn workforce credentials; degree completion is improving at community colleges; and enrollment at four-year universities has grown steadily. “We’re doing better in retention and completion, and if we continue on those trends we believe that we will be on track to reach that [attainment] goal 12, 13 years down the road,” says Blake.

But Virginia also faces challenging demographic changes.

First, the number of high school graduates is expected to grow less than 0.1 percent through 2030. In addition, much of Virginia’s population growth is coming from minorities and low-income families, groups that traditionally are underrepresented in higher education.

Of the working adults in Virginia with a postsecondary degree or credential, only 31 percent currently are from non-Asian minorities. (Educational attainment also is low in Virginia’s rural areas, at 27 percent).

Virginia’s educational attainment ranking slips to 11th when looking at the educational achievement of younger adults, ages 25 to 34.  “One of the things I think a state like Virginia can and should be a leader in is trying to address some of the equity of educational attainment,” says Jenkins of the Lumina Foundation, “…and part of it is realizing you have to focus on those populations and how well they are being served by institutions and the resources that support education.”

To help increase educational attainment, SCHEV has put a new emphasis on communication with the state’s school systems. Higher-education and school-system officials are working together more closely to help students reach educational and career goals.

“I think that’s the turning point right there,” says Gil Minor III, chairman of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council, of educating traditionally underrepresented students.

Recognizing the importance of pre-K-12 instruction to higher education, the 2011 Top Jobs legislation changed the makeup of SCHEV’s board to include a community college president and a school system superintendent.

“For a while at least, there was not very much connection between the pre-K to 12 and SCHEV or the universities, and I think that’s changed dramatically,” says Minor, who recently completed his term as chairman of SCHEV.  “The key now is to make sure that kids coming out of high school are better prepared to go to a community college and that when these kids come through the programs, they are able to do [the work]. That’s as much of the heart and soul of the educational challenge as anything.”


The affordability of higher education is another key part of the Virginia Plan. Low-income and middle-income students can receive financial aid from federal and state programs as well as the colleges themselves. But even then the costs can be daunting for some families, says Bonnie Sutton, president and CEO of the Access College Foundation in Norfolk. The nonprofit helps students in six Hampton Roads localities seek higher education.  “It’s rarely enough,” she says of financial aid packages that students receive. She also points out that much of the financial need is met through debt, which can be difficult for low-income families to manage. “We know in dealing with these students there’s still really an unmet need for virtually all of our students. Hardly anyone has it all there.”

In response, Access has begun providing some students with a competitive “Last Dollar Scholarship” to cover their unmet needs.

College access programs across the state are working to increase college enrollment among low-income students.  Those initiatives start with presentations in middle school about the availability of financial-aid resources.

At the Access College Foundation, counselors are in all Hampton Roads high schools, helping families with the financial-aid process, including filing about 4,000 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms each year. Access is part of a nationwide effort to simplify the FAFSA form. “A hundred-plus questions are really a barrier,” says Sutton. “This is a barrier for the ones who need the process because FAFSA is the only method to apply for the federal Pell grant, which is the federal grant for the lowest-income families.”

Affordability also is a major part of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council’s Growth4VA campaign.

The group wants the legislature to provide more stable higher-education funding. In 2015, Virginia ranked 44th in per-student state support. Higher-education funding can oscillate dramatically depending on the state’s budget issues.

That situation makes it difficult for schools to set tuition rates. “We really are looking at a one-year funding mechanism in place for our institutions of higher education, and it is really, really hard to develop a long-range plan that is meaningful and beneficial to the students and the university with a one-year funding cycle that is subject to change the following year,” says Fralin, the SCHEV chairman.

One idea is to create a designated higher-education reserve fund that would help ease the blow of budget cuts. “The funding piece is critical,” says Katharine Webb, a member of SCHEV and former executive at the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association. “In 2007, the General Assembly made a goal that they wanted to have 67 percent funding going to colleges and universities come from the general fund. We’re still not there. We haven’t been there.”

Instead, in the 2017-2018 school year, the state share will be an average of 47 percent, although the state share ranges from 35 percent to 65 percent depending on the institution.  Last year, the average tuition and mandatory fees for in-state students increased an average of 4.8 percent, rising 4.7 percent at four-year colleges and 2.7 percent at two-year institutions.

Fralin says SCHEV also may recommend that the state allow colleges greater autonomy to streamline their operations. In October, SCHEV hosted a conference of university presidents designed to share best ideas on efficiency.

Degree completion
Virginia’s 23 community colleges will play a key role in the Virginia Plan. The colleges provide workforce credentials, less expensive academic programs and more affordable routes to four-year degrees. “We are the biggest provider of higher education in Virginia,” says Jeff Kraus, assistant vice chancellor of strategic communications for VCCS. “We are the most affordable option for families, and we’re proud of that … [For] us to grow into the educated state that we want to become and for us to grow into the educated state that we need to become for competitive reasons, community colleges are going to be essential to getting us there.”

One major initiative is already showing results. A new state workforce credential program offers grants covering up to two-thirds of the cost of 146 in-demand credentials, licenses and certifications. In the program’s first year, which ended in June, 4,268 Virginians earned credentials in high-demand jobs, a big jump from 1,528 the year before.

The program is expected to grow as word about it spreads. The community college system began a promotional campaign this fall.

But community colleges also face plenty of challenges.

A September report on the community college system by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC), the General Assembly’s watchdog agency, provided a stark overview of the difficulties the colleges face.  The report revealed that only 39 percent of Virginia community college students complete degree, certificate or credentialing programs. That is in line with the completion rates for community colleges across the country, but the trend is costly to students and the state.

The JLARC report highlighted challenges VCCS has been addressing for years, especially through its Complete2021 initiative. Its goal is to triple the number of credentials students earn at community colleges by 2021. During the past several years, the community college system has been implementing Guided Pathways, a program aimed at improving completion rates.

The system has encouraged colleges to improve advising, reduce the number of electives and majors offered and do a better job guiding students toward careers.  “You would be surprised how many students come to community college and don’t know what they want to do,” says Sharon Morrissey, vice chancellor for academic services and research at VCCS. “Once they’ve clarified their goal, you need to get them on a highly structured plan so they don’t have a lot of choices and options, but it’s a very guided pathway.”

The system has made some progress. Although enrollment at Virginia community colleges has dropped 14 percent since its peak in 2011, the number of degrees and credentials they award has increased by a couple thousand annually to 32,500 last year.

Like Piedmont Virginia, many community colleges have changed the way they advise students.  At New River Community College in Dublin, “connection specialists” reach out to students who may have poor grades or bad attendance.

Today the community college has one of the best completion rates in the commonwealth, coming in third with 43.3 percent. “We have seen a 25 percent reduction in the number of students who are withdrawing from their classes,” says Deborah Kennedy, the college’s dean of student services.  “They’re staying in, and they’re being successful.”

VCCS is exploring ways to help its colleges use limited resources. “We are having a lot of conversations with colleges about how we restructure advising so we can give students the support they need,” says Morrissey. “It is a resource issue and a need that we have because we don’t have enough people to give students the support they need.”

Advising also is important in helping students navigate Virginia’s complex transfer system. Virginia has one of the most decentralized systems in the nation for public four-year institutions. While that has created a diverse group of highly regarded colleges, their transfer and guaranteed admissions agreements with community colleges are complex. “One of the things that we found in this decade of research is that community college students don’t make the right choices, especially in a state like Virginia where transfer is so complicated,” says Morrissey.

JLARC points out that many of the agreements are confusing and not frequently updated. In addition, many of the agreements do not provide students assurances that their community college coursework will transfer to a university.

The JLARC report suggests that the VCCS work with SCHEV to provide a centralized place to access transfer agreements.

Promoting a top-rated system
Virginia’s four-year colleges rank among the best in the nation. This year, SmartAsset named Virginia its No. 1 state for higher education. The New York-based personal finance company noted Virginia had a high graduation rate and had an average 20-year return on investment of $442,660 (fourth highest in the study).

In addition, five Virginia universities made’s list of best colleges based on tuition and earnings of its graduates. The group included the University of Virginia (No. 11), Washington & Lee University (16), Virginia Tech (23), Virginia Military Institute (41) and James Madison University (46).

Growth4VA is promoting the value of higher education in its campaign leading up to the start of the next General Assembly session and the inauguration of a new governor.  A new study from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at U.Va. says the economic impact of Virginia’s higher education system is $36.21 billion and creates 167,277 jobs. In addition to more funding, the Growth4VA campaign is encouraging better cooperation between business and higher-education officials to ensure education and training programs are aligned with job opportunities.

Minor, chairman of the Growth4VA campaign and a SCHEV member, says Virginia also must do a better job of promoting the value of its system.

“A return on investment is a lifelong proposition, and that’s why I, and any reasonable person, want as many people coming through the system as we can. We don’t talk about how valuable it is,” says Minor. “Not every student wants a four-year degree, but every student wants to get a good job and be trained.”