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Democrat Terry McAuliffe centers affordability, job access in plan for Virginia colleges

The candidate for governor unveiled a plan for higher education Wednesday.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe has unveiled his plans for Virginia's higher education system. He served as governor from 2014 to 2018. (Steve Helber/AP)

Former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe said he will support community colleges and increase financial aid in a plan for the state’s higher education system that he unveiled Wednesday.

The Democrat, who is vying for a second term as governor, released a slate of initiatives aimed at increasing employment and access to high-paying jobs by investing in education. His approach includes plans to help high-schoolers earn college credits and enroll at two-year schools upon graduation, expand job training, and make it easier for community college students to transfer to four-year universities.

“I was thought of as the jobs governor,” McAuliffe said. His administration, which lasted from 2014 until 2018, saw the creation of 200,000 jobs, according to his campaign. The unemployment rate also fell from 5.7 percent to 3.3 percent, as the national rate dropped from 6.6 percent to 4 percent.

But jobs require qualified employees, and Virginia needs to do more to align its education system with the needs of the workforce, McAuliffe said. He cited a projection from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce that estimates 70 percent of positions by 2027 will require some higher education.

“Yet, in Virginia right now, 57.4 percent of our students today get a credential beyond high school,” McAuliffe said. “I want better outcomes for our students.”

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The Democrat said his administration would work with businesses to understand the skills students need before they graduate, emulating his work as governor.

Virginia implemented the FastForward program in 2016 to train residents for jobs in education, health care and other in-demand fields. And McAuliffe’s “Pathways to 50K” initiative saw more than 50,000 students graduate with degrees in science, technology, engineering, math and health, according to his campaign.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has also prioritized jobs in those sectors — in 2019 he said he would help public universities produce 31,000 more degrees in computer science and related fields over the next two decades, an initiative spurred in part by the new Amazon headquarters in Arlington.

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To help more students access college, McAuliffe said he will establish an office for financial aid programs and expand a Northam administration effort that makes community college free for low- and middle-income residents earning degrees in in-demand industries.

He also committed to infusing more money into the state’s five historically Black universities; advocating for the continuation of pandemic-era SNAP benefits that made about 3 million students eligible for federal food assistance; establishing a competitive grant for community colleges to provide services to students; and using some of the $846 million earmarked for Virginia higher education through the American Rescue Plan to increase financial aid across institutions.

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McAuliffe’s Republican opponent, Glenn Youngkin, has not yet released an education plan specific to colleges and universities but has emphasized the need for higher academic standards in a plan to reform K-12 schools. He has also promised to ban from classrooms critical race theory, an academic framework that examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism.

“I have a vision for the children of Virginia,” Youngkin said in a recent statement about his education plan, “that they would not just survive but they would thrive in Virginia’s classrooms, that they would be challenged to reach their full potential, that they would have rigorous curriculum that would prepare them for the workplace of the future, for the college opportunity of the future, and that all of our children will see their dream opportunity here in Virginia.”

McAuliffe will tout his higher education plan through the week, with stops planned at several schools, including George Mason University’s Arlington campus, the Germanna Community College Fredericksburg Center for Advanced Technology, and Virginia Commonwealth University, according to his campaign.