By Justin Mattingly, Richmond Times-Dispatch
Academic leaders and public officials gathered Wednesday in Richmond to discuss how best to turn higher education investment into economic output in Virginia.
The Virginia Business Higher Education Council and Growth4VA, the council’s campaign to help grow the state’s economy, on Wednesday hosted the 2017 Virginia Summit on Higher Education and Economic Competitiveness in the Richmond Marriott on East Broad Street.
Over the course of the day-long summit, business leaders, higher education administrators and members of state government, including the major-party gubernatorial candidates, talked about the role of higher education in the commonwealth’s economic competitiveness.
“Higher education is a crucial economic engine for Virginia,” said Gilmer Minor, the chairman of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council.
Both Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, the Democratic candidate for governor, and the Republican candidate, Ed Gillespie, spoke at the summit, Northam first, and then Gillespie.
The two candidates, speaking less than a month away from Election Day, highlighted the importance of keeping students taught at Virginia schools in the state to contribute to the economy.
“A talented workforce is a linchpin for substantive economic growth,” said Gillespie, who attended Catholic University of America in Washington.
Northam, a Virginia Military Institute alumnus, said it’s important to focus on all parts of the state as officials work to improve the ties between higher education and the economy.
“If we’re going to lift up the economy of all Virginia, we need to pay attention to rural Virginia,” Northam said.
Wednesday’s summit also featured two panels, one on talent and the other on innovation, and a keynote address by Del. M. Kirkland Cox, R‑Colonial Heights, the speaker-to-be in the House of Delegates.
Speakers said there’s a need to create more experiential learning opportunities, such as internships, for students and added that the pipeline, starting in high school, needs to be strengthened to get students ready for the jobs in demand.
Post-secondary access differs across the state, according to a report commissioned by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia and distributed Wednesday.
About half of working-age Virginians have a degree or workforce credential, according to the report, but about 40 percent of the state’s 133 localities have rates below 30 percent.
“Meeting the growing demand for post-secondary education requires the commonwealth to identify the gaps in educational attainment needs across the state and to implement strategies to support greater access to and completion of post-secondary education,” the report said.
Compared to other school divisions, a total of 40 divisions — about 30 percent — have fewer students going to college and more students in lower-income families, according to the report.
Peter Blake, the director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, updated summit attendees on the state’s progress toward its goal of being the best-educated state by 2030. Part of that goal is increasing the percentage of Virginians with degrees or credentials.
The state currently ranks sixth in the U.S., said Blake, adding that the commonwealth is on track to add 100,000 additional degrees as part of the plan. A total of 32,219 additional degrees were added this year, according to a slideshow he presented.
With more degrees comes more talent, speakers said, and it’s important to keep them in Virginia. The state has 16 public institutions and 23 community colleges.
“If we win on talent, we win period. If we have the best talent in America, we will have the most healthy economy in America,” said Stephen Moret, president of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership.
Everyone must continue to work together in pursuit of its best-educated by 2030 goal and its desire to regain the No. 1 ranking for business, said Dennis Treacy, chairman of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce.
“The business community can’t do it alone. The university community can’t do it alone. The General Assembly can’t do it alone,” he said. “When all those entities gather together and pull toward the same direction, maybe we can do it. And I’m very optimistic we can do it.”