The council engaged us last year to investigate what Virginians really think about higher education and its economic impact. Because we ordinarily do our survey work on different sides of the political aisle, they asked us to team up and take the temperature of the state’s taxpayers and tuition-payers on this timely topic.
We conducted two surveys of likely Virginia voters. What we found sets the commonwealth apart from much of the country.
Some national polls have detected growing ambivalence about higher education and an emerging partisan split over the value of college. By contrast, Virginians across the board expressed pride in their highly ranked higher-education system and see it as a competitive advantage economically:
• More than 80 percent of Republicans and Democrats agreed that “Virginia’s universities, colleges and community colleges are a valuable public asset of the Commonwealth of Virginia, are well run and are a sound place to invest public dollars.”
• Nearly 90 percent of voters said attending and graduating from a Virginia college or university is a good investment because of the higher incomes that graduates typically earn.
• Almost 80 percent of Virginia voters agreed that “a greater state investment in Virginia’s higher education system will result in higher average incomes for Virginia workers and a stronger economy.”
• 70 percent said they are more likely to vote for a candidate who says that “Virginia’s higher education system is an especially valuable asset in today’s economy because our colleges and community colleges cultivate the talent it takes to succeed, the ideas it takes to innovate and compete, and the character it takes to be good leaders and productive citizens.”
These are impressive numbers by any standard, revealing a level of bipartisan and demographic consensus rarely seen on any subject these days, especially higher education.
A partial explanation likely lies in frequent news coverage of the Virginia higher-education system’s standout performance, as reflected in high rankings and independent assessments. The SmartAsset website, for example, last year ranked the system No. 1 in the country, citing high graduation rates and return on investment.
Notably, Virginia’s higher- education system generates the second-highest graduation rates in the country despite ranking near the bottom (41st in 2016) in state support per student.
Another possible explanation for Virginians’ strong support of higher education lies in the active partnership between the state’s colleges and the business community. Business groups such as the Virginia Business Higher Education Council have been touting a major study showing that the Virginia public higher- education system adds $36 billion annually to gross state product, supports more than 167,000 jobs and produces nearly $2 in new state revenue for every state dollar spent.
Support for an even closer partnership between colleges and businesses is a major theme that emerged from our surveys.
Virginians see more internships, apprenticeships and work-study programs as a key to helping students find good jobs, helping businesses find good workers and keeping talented young people from leaving Virginia for better opportunities elsewhere.
They also support increased collaboration on business start-ups using university-based research.
Finally, voters want to make sure all qualified Virginia students can afford postsecondary degrees and industry-recognized credentials. They support multiple strategies for bending the cost curve, including more financial aid, alternative pathways to degrees and a state reserve fund to protect against tuition spikes during future recessions.
Perhaps leaders and educators nationwide should take a page from the Virginia textbook. The best way to meet the challenge posed by higher-education critics is likely to be the Virginia way: focus on the intersection of education and the economy, collaborate with businesses, produce measurable and marketable results for students, and get that success story out.
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