Cuccinelli unveils Virginia higher-ed policy plan in former governor Doug Wilder’s class

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II unveiled a plan to improve the state’s public colleges by building closer alliances with businesses and shifting more tuition assistance to students who choose in-demand fields of study such as science, technology and health care.

The plan comes as Cuccinelli (R) and Democrat Terry McAuliffe, his opponent in the race for Virginia governor, are emphasizing education. McAuliffe has spent the week doing a series of events on the subject, and the two candidates appeared separately Thursday in the Richmond classroom of former governor L. Douglas Wilder (D), who teaches public policy at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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About 40 students — some dropping in from other political science classes — crowded into a fourth-floor classroom to hear the two candidates speak in back-to-back appearances. Cuccinelli stood behind the lectern and mostly stuck to the topic of his education plan. McAuliffe walked more freely around the room and touched on most of his campaign talking points, hitting topics such as transportation spending and Medicaid expansion.

Wilder quizzed the students about their impressions of the candidates afterward, and they seemed to agree that Cuccinelli came off as “subdued” and McAuliffe seemed “effervescent,” as Wilder put it.

Wilder kept his own views to himself. He said he expects to eventually endorse someone in the race, but he was waiting for one of the candidates to put “more meat on the bone” — explaining what he “can do and . . . how you’re going to do it.”

Dhara Amin, 24, a graduate student studying criminal justice, came to the class with an open mind and said she remained undecided afterward.

“I’m just glad I have a few more weeks,” she said.

Earlier in the day, McAuliffe also appeared at Little Ambassadors’ Academy in Arlington, where he offered details about how he would pay for his education proposals.

After chatting with 4-year-olds about their favorite superhero (Iron Man) and before reading aloud from “How Do Dinosaurs Go to School?,” McAuliffe said boosting early childhood development centers such as Little Ambassadors’ — where the wait list stretches into 2016 — was a key education priority, along with reforming the Standards of Learning, boosting teacher pay and improving job training at Virginia’s community colleges.

“The question that’s always important to ask — I know politicians always like to make promises — is how do you pay for it?” McAuliffe said.

Unlike Cuccinelli, McAuliffe supports expanding Medicaid. Under President Obama’s health-care plan, the federal government would pay the lion’s share of the costs, and McAuliffe said the expansion would free up money in the state budget that could be used for education.

“If the Medicaid expansion doesn’t go through, I think we have tremendous challenges we’re facing,” McAuliffe said later. Asked whether tax increases would be “on the table” to pay for education, he said, “No.”

Cuccinelli has said he would not support Medicaid expansion unless a series of reforms are made to the program and Virginia is given more control over how it is run. The two candidates strongly differ on whether expansion would cost or save money for the state. And Cuccinelli has also cast doubt on whether the federal government would continue to pick up the tab over the long term, potentially leaving Virginia with huge bills to pay.

Polls show that McAuliffe has opened a lead in the hard-fought race, particularly among women. McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman from McLean, has also campaigned heavily on the theme of building up the state’s community colleges and enhancing their ability to create jobs. He has highlighted Cuccinelli’s move as attorney general to demand records from a climate researcher at the University of Virginia by saying he would honor academic freedom.

In their platforms on K-12 and higher ed, however, the candidates share some common ground. McAuliffe’s campaign platform talks about a need to “protect” Virginia’s Tuition Assistance Grant Program for private colleges and universities; Cuccinelli said he would support increasing the grant maximum to $3,500 for undergraduates and $3,700 for graduate students, and limiting them to four years to encourage on-time graduation.

Both have urged more emphasis on preparing students for the 21st-century workplace by focusing on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. They have also emphasized the importance of the growing health-care industry, or STEM-H. They say higher-education institutions should make data available on the earnings and employment of their graduates, so that families can judge the schools’ performance. And both agree that more can be done to help military veterans attend college.

Cuccinelli’s higher-education blueprint reflects his view that the middle class has been hit hardest by soaring tuition and that colleges and universities must do more to prepare students for today’s tech-driven workplace — especially growing cybersecurity and bioscience fields. He also pledged to tie state funding for colleges and universities to performance at those schools, as measured by graduation rates and “managerial efficiency.”

Overall, Cuccinelli’s strategy embraces greater involvement by the private sector in higher education. He wants businesses to help shape curricula and create more internships, especially to instill work and career skills. He would alter the traditional donor-recipient relationship between private-sector grants and institutions of higher learning, allowing businesses that donate money to help lower students’ tuition in science and technology programs to get the first crack at interviewing and hiring those students in their junior or senior year. And he would allow private-sector companies to open branches, at a discount, within academic institutions to increase the possibility of collaboration and project development.

To push colleges and universities further into the areas where job demand is greatest, Cuccinelli would also eliminate Virginia’s $1,000 Two-Year Transfer Grant for humanities students and increase the $2,000 grant for low- and middle-income students who focus on the sciences or health care at four-year institutions.

He also said first-year students and their families should be able to lock in a tuition rate for four years. And he said he would challenge colleges and universities to offer at least one bachelor’s program in the sciences or a related field that would cost no more than $10,000. To do so, he said higher-education institutions could require a certain number of Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate credits prior to entrance; require high school students to attend some college classes; create weekend classes to boost credit loads; allow professional internships to count as college credit; and use summer school to shorten the length of an undergraduate program to three years.

In regard to campus safety, Cuccinelli said he would push for greater uniformity of standards in investigating and punishing sexual assaults on campus. Although federal law lays out a framework for the process, Cuccinelli said, similar allegations based on the same evidence can nonetheless lead to very different sanctions, depending on the institution.

The initiatives also reflect personal interests of Cuccinelli’s because he was a mechanical engineering student at the University of Virginia and worked as an undergraduate to combat sexual assault on campus. His higher-education platform, for example, calls for more uniform codes to address sexual assault on campus; a plank of the package also appears aimed at closing a substantial gender gap of support between him and McAuliffe.

Ben Pershing contributed to this report.

 
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