SHEEO Member Highlight: Virginia's Plan for Higher Education

Peter Blake
Director, State Council of Higher Education for Virginia


Virginia faces new challenges and opportunities for higher education. In our evolving economy and increasingly interwoven world, Virginians will need deeper and broader knowledge and skills to be productive participants. At the same time, the demographics of Virginia are changing. Increasingly, our youth come from populations which historically have been underrepresented in both higher education and the highly skilled sectors of our workforce.

In the 1970s, when I was an undergraduate at Virginia Commonwealth University, about one in 100 people in Virginia were born outside the United States. By 2012, that figure was one in nine, according to the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia. These changes transpire at a time when the price of attending Virginia colleges and universities has increased at unsustainable rates.

These converging trends led the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), with help from students, families and stakeholders in business, higher education and legislative and executive branches of state government, to create The Virginia Plan for Higher Education. The Plan, approved in 2014, sets forth a bold objective: to make Virginia the best-educated state in the nation by 2030. To achieve this, SCHEV plans to increase the number of awards granted from about 80,000 per year to 118,000 by 2030 – 1.5 million awards in all (including workforce credentials and associate’s and bachelor’s degrees). We’ll also support this objective through our four main goals:

• Provide affordable access for all.
• Optimize student success for work and life.
• Drive change and improvement through investment and innovation.
• Advance the economic and cultural prosperity of the Commonwealth and its regions.

Clearly, each goal requires collaboration and commitment from Virginia’s institutions of higher education, political leaders, citizens and business leaders. Each goal is daunting on its own. But the stakes are high. To ensure Virginia meets these goals, the Council set measures and targets to track our progress and established six key initiatives for 2016. I’ll highlight these measures and initiatives in the context of discussing our four main goals.
The first goal, provide affordable access for all, requires careful consideration of factors including the net price of higher education; expanding outreach to K-12 and traditionally underserved communities; and creating and cultivating pathways for traditional, non-traditional, and returning students.

Last year, upon SCHEV’s recommendation, the governor and General Assembly approved $1.1 million for need-based aid to support industry-based credentials through non-credit instruction at Virginia’s community colleges – the first time the state has provided funding for such training. And in June 2015, Virginia secured a $50,000 Lumina grant to support increased access opportunities for underrepresented populations. The grant focuses on increased use of data analysis in this area, identification of promising practices at our institutions, and development of policies to increase opportunities for all students in the areas of financial aid and affordable pathways.
The second goal, optimize student success for work and life, involves strategies such as improving completion rates through effective remediation and academic and student-services infrastructures, and engaging adult learners and veterans in degree completion and lifelong learning.

While Virginia ranks higher than average in completion rates (based on the College Completion report published by The Chronicle of Higher Education), gaps remain in the rate of completion between traditional and underrepresented students, defined as those who are of minority race or ethnicity, receive Pell grant funding, are 25 or older, or represent regions of the state with lower education-attainment rates. To reach the second goal, Virginia must close these gaps.

Recently, Virginia joined Complete College America, an initiative that focuses on improving completion rates for students. In partnership with the office of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, we will work with institutions to pursue strategies and use data metrics to track success. In June of this year, SCHEV will work in partnership with institutions and the Office of the Governor to host a statewide forum that spotlights promising initiatives and national trends related to access and student success.

The third goal, drive change and improvement through investment and innovation, requires four main strategies: identifying and implementing public funding strategies to sustain long-term planning and responsiveness; cultivating innovations that promote quality, collaboration and efficiency; fostering faculty excellence, scholarship and diversity; and enhancing higher-education leadership, governance, and accountability.

Nationally, state funding support for students in higher education has not kept up with costs. For 2011 and 2012, SHEEO reported that Virginia’s per-capita support for higher education was lower than the national average. Virginia allocates 5.8 percent of state tax returns and lottery profits to higher education; the national average is 6.8 percent. In other words, other states are investing more in higher education than Virginia.

As a result, our families and students have been burdened with more and more of the cost of higher education. We find this not only unsustainable but unconscionable. When the expense of a degree is too great for most people to bear without crippling debt, it distorts the egalitarian principles of higher education. When only the wealthy can afford to attend college without mortgaging their futures – and often those of their families – it means diversity in all its forms will suffer. We can no longer continue as we have: raising tuition, cutting public funding, teaching the same way we always have, governing as if oblivious to the truth that we need to change how we fund higher education in Virginia.

To ensure that our higher-education system and our Commonwealth remain competitive, we need to rethink traditional models of leadership, governance and funding. We will work with our higher-education institutions and our Legislature’s newly formed Joint Subcommittee on the Future Competitiveness of Virginia Higher Education to seek innovations that encourage and incentivize greater collaborations with higher education institutions, K-12, and other partners. All of us involved need to support greater efficiencies; promote high quality of education within and beyond the classroom; stabilize funding; enhance services to students; and partner with business, our communities, and K-12 to right the ship toward a future that supports the needs of our citizens, our regions, and Virginia.

The fourth goal, advance the economic and cultural prosperity of the Commonwealth and its regions, ties together the financial and social health of the state. This goal aims for Virginia’s higher education to build a competitive workforce; become a catalyst for entrepreneurship and business incubation; find ways to support research and development; encourage and expand participation and engagement in service to the public and the community; and demonstrate the impact of higher education on economic development.

Success will be measured in part by the economic prosperity of our graduates and the growth of our research. To achieve this goal, we must view Virginia not merely as a whole but also in its constituent parts. While the Commonwealth ranks 10th in the nation in terms of per-capita income, Virginia’s economy is variable across its regions: Incomes range from $66,121 per capita in Northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C., to $32,150 in the southern part of the state. Resources, training, needs and economic realities vary from area to area.

Research funding can play an important role in economic development. In 2013, Virginia ranked 14th nationally in annual expenditures on research in higher education. By 2030, The Virginia Plan calls for Virginia to increase its share of research funding by 30 percent, measured as a share of the national total. Among our efforts to achieve this goal last year, the presidents of all public institutions in Virginia, the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, the Center for Innovative Technology, and SCHEV signed a Memorandum of Understanding that re-emphasized the value of improved collaborations between higher education and economic development.

These four goals support The Virginia Plan for Higher Education’s ambition to become the best-educated state in the U.S. by 2030. The Plan requires bringing together many strands of our economy, society, educational institutions and policies. We believe that through our painstaking work over the past two years, we at SCHEV, along with our partners and stakeholders, have gained the knowledge, insights, and tools to achieve this. And we believe that to do less would shortchange our citizens and our state.

The Virginia Plan for Higher Education’s Six Targets to be the best-educated state

By 2030 we will:

1. Grant 1.5 million total undergraduate degrees and workforce credentials
2. Close the gap between underrepresented and “traditional” students
3. Increase available financial resources to students, as a percentage of the cost of attendance, from 38 percent to 50 percent
4. Increase Virginia academic-research expenditures to a share of U.S. total that is 30 percent larger than in 2013

Each year, we will:

5. Ensure that tuition and fees for in-state undergraduates is lower than national average and less than 10 percent of income for low- and middle-income students
6. Measure whether seventy-five percent of graduates earn sustainable wages three years after graduation

For more information regarding the Virginia Plan for Higher Education, please visit our website at

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