A special commission on Virginia's 37 public colleges proposed new standards today for the nationally renowned state schools, including measures telling consumers "whether they have received what they are paying for" at those institutions.
The centerpiece of the panel's report, to be delivered to the governor Jan. 17, will be a "quality assurance" plan that would identify "core competencies all undergraduates should develop."
The commissioners recommend that the state create "institutional performance agreements," six-year compacts between the state and individual universities and colleges that link state financial support to school achievements. Under such performance compacts, which might include such criteria as graduation rates, schools would pledge to meet specific goals tailored to the institution.
Gov. James S. Gilmore III's commission also wants to improve work force training for industries such as the high-technology centers in the Washington suburbs and restrain institutions from increasing tuitions and fees, which shot up during the 1990s. The commission wants university trustees to assume a stricter oversight role on college spending.
The commission also believes every Virginia graduate's training should include mathematics, sciences, technology, history, literature and at least one foreign language.
The sketchy outlines of the commission's goals could take years to fill in with fine-print policy. For instance, the commissioners have not been specific about what sort of financial penalty an institution might suffer if it failed to meet its goals under the compact.
Although the university model may be only a distant cousin to the firm, result-oriented Standards of Learning for secondary schools, "it's going to cause us to be more rigorous," said Alan G. Merten, president of George Mason University in Fairfax County and the commission's leading advocate for enhanced technology training.
If fully adopted by the Gilmore administration and the General Assembly, the higher education proposals could leave a lasting imprint on 14 universities and 23 community colleges, much as the Republican-backed SOL program shook up elementary and high schools across the state.
"We're on new terrain today," said the commission chairman, Edward L. Flippen, a Richmond lawyer and longtime friend of Gilmore's.
Shortly after taking office nearly two years ago, Gilmore first startled and then infuriated administrators of Virginia's public "Ivies" by suggesting they had lost sight of what he viewed as their central mission, delivering a top-notch education to thousands of young people at rates that were the envy of other states.
The commission Gilmore appointed to nudge those institutions toward greater affordability and accountability to parents and students met here today to put the finishing touches on the broadly worded recommendations. The early versions of the proposals will be incorporated in the budget that Gilmore is drafting for the General Assembly convening in January.
Del. James H. Dillard II (R-Fairfax), co-chairman of the House Education Committee, said his legislative colleagues are certain to preserve their funding and policy prerogatives in reviewing the commission's proposals.
"They don't want to give away this power," Dillard said.
Over 16 months, the commission heard from 115 experts in hearings held at 13 colleges and universities.
The panel's send-off witness this morning was Gilmore's wife, Roxane, like him a graduate of the University of Virginia and herself a classics teacher at the private Randolph-Macon College.
The first lady, mother of two boys, one an 11th-grader now surveying college choices, said people still wonder, "Does a degree granted after four years of study have integrity?" If not, "even students themselves will feel cheated in the long run when they discover that their degree is not the ticket to opportunity that they had bargained for," Roxane Gilmore said.
"At the end of the day," the commission said, "the public has few, if any, objective measures" of how colleges truly do. "It is time . . . to develop a body of meaningful evidence to support the stellar reputation of public higher education in Virginia."