Dear Virginia, Higher-Ed Promotes Economic Development

W. Taylor Revely IV

W. Taylor Revely IV, president of Longwood University, posts a shrew op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today. I say “shrewd” because the op-ed takes the form of an open letter to Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, which is seeking a site for a second headquarters employing 50,000 people and paying average salaries in the six figures, but it delivers a powerful subliminal message to the older, literate segment of the population that reads newspaper editorials.

The overt message to Bezos, who likely will never see the op-ed, is this: Invest in Virginia because we have “the best assortment of public and private colleges in the country — in fact, on the planet.” The subliminal message can be read in the headline that accompanied the column: “Higher ed makes Va. the best choice for HQ2.” In other words, higher-ed supports economic development. I don’t know if the op-ed was a formal part of the P.R. roll out by GROWTH4VA, which is pushing for higher ed-friendly budgetary and legislative reforms in the 2018 General Assembly session, but it delivers the same bottom-line message.

Reveley’s argument can be broken into two parts. First, Virginia has the best system of higher ed anywhere:

Consider the latest US News & World-Report college rankings. The commonwealth is home to two of the top six public universities nationally (W&M and the University of Virginia), and the only state besides California with two public universities among the top 35 overall. Among the top nine public regional institutions in the South, four are in Virginia. … Virginia’s public universities rank among the nation’s leaders in retention and graduation rates.

Also, Revely argues, the state’s decentralized higher-ed system provides a broader of educational settings than other higher-ed systems, giving students a wider assortment of environments from which to choose and thrive.

The second part of the op-ed focuses on the value of a liberal arts education, which his university, Longwood, provides. Virginia’s colleges are especially strong in the liberal arts, Revely contends, and Amazon needs a steady supply of employees with strong backgrounds in the liberal arts and sciences — not narrowly trained technicians, “but people with imagination, who can think critically, solve problems, work with and understand diverse groups, and effectively communicate.”

“So, Jeff, please consider Virginia,” Revely concludes in his op-ed. But to his broader audience, the message ostensibly addressed to Bezos appears buried in the column: “Virginia’s strong higher education landscape, with broad bipartisan support, is a key reason why in an age of great division, our state’s political culture remains remarkably civil, and the state itself is arguably the best-run in the nation.”

Thus, subtly, while avoiding self-serving and off-putting rhetoric, Revely appeals to Virginians’ better angels of bipartisanship, civility and aspirations for a stronger economy. By inviting readers to make the link themselves between higher-ed and economic development, he shapes the rhetorical battlefield for the higher-ed debate to come.

I will discuss the Virginia-has-the-best-public-system-of-higher-ed meme in the next post, and address the connections between higher-ed and economic development in future blog posts.

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4 responses to “Dear Virginia, Higher-Ed Promotes Economic Development”

  1. LocalGovGuy Avatar

    Two things that people don’t understand about higher ed in 2017:

    A.) Undergrad rankings aren’t anywhere near as important to the schools as grad/professional school rankings. Just a fact. Universities are increasingly evaluated based on the quality of their grad/professional schools. This comes in three forms: A.) They make more $ off these programs; B.) There’s much greater prestige to grad school rankings than undergrad in the academic community; and C.) These schools provide the best/highest paying jobs for the students.

    B.) Even more important? International branding. First, the student marketplace is global. Second, the job market is global….is your school even known to recruiters in Berlin or Shanghai?

    The UC system crushes Virginia in both metrics. What people on this board have no clue about is that U.Va. props up the entire state. You take U.Va. out of the equation, and Virginia looks a lot more like Mississippi than California.

    U.Va. professional school rankings by U.S. News: Law (8); Business (14); Medicine (24 &27 primary and research); Education (18); Engineering (39); Nursing (19).

    Outside of U.Va., here are the professional school rankings for the best programs by public universities in Virginia: Nursing-VCU (48); Medicine-VCU (69 & 80 primary and research); Engineering-Virginia Tech (27); Education-VCU (41); Law-George Mason & William Mary (41); Business-William & Mary (57).

    That’s right. Outside of U.Va., the state doesn’t have a single professional school program ranked in the top 25.

    As to international rankings….wow, it’s bad. Out of the top 1000 universities in the world, U.Va. is ranked 113 and Virginia Tech between 301-350. No other Virginia school makes the list.!/page/0/length/25/locations/US/name/virginia/sort_by/rank/sort_order/asc/cols/stats

    The UCs? 6 of the top 40 engineering schools are UCs. UCLA and Berkeley both have top 20 ed, business, and law schools. UCLA and UCSF (Berkeley doesn’t have a med school) are both top 15 Med schools.

    International rep? 6 UCs are in the top 100 world universities.

    1. Politically, what matters most to Virginians is the cost and quality of undergraduate education. What matters most to the universities is the quality of their graduate programs. Could a compromise be structured around catering to Virginia parents by keeping the cost of undergraduate tuition low and reserving more slots for in-state students, yet mollifying the institutions by giving them more latitude over cost and admittance for graduate students?

  2. Virginia has a good range of options for public undergraduate education, and this extends beyond UVA. W&M is a very unique option for undergraduate public education, VT has high quality particularly in engineering, JMU has high satisfaction rates and good outcomes, etc. I have heard friends in Maryland comment specifically that they envy Virginia’s options.

    What Virginia does not seem to have is: 1) a cluster (institutions & employers) that drives synergies (examples would be Silicon Valley, RTP in NC, Route 128, Austin, San Diego Biotech, etc., 2) a breakout research powerhouse, particularly in STEM (JHU, Michigan, etc.), 3) a powerhouse private university unlike our neighbors (JHU, Duke). 4) A university that is a powerhouse across the board in graduate education (Berkeley).

    UVA is particularly strong in some professional programs like law and business, and well-regarded at the undergraduate level, but is not a research powerhouse and not a match for the likes of Michigan and Berkeley across the board. Tech’s strength focuses around engineering, but its location doesn’t help.

    Oddly enough, Virginia’s most cutting-edge institution, in another sense, may be Liberty, with its huge online programs.

  3. LocalGovGuy, in most states, the higher education system is set up with a pecking order, with “University of (Fill in State Name)” and possibly “(Fill in State Name) State” getting priority. They tend to be older, get more funding, get the med school and hospital (a huge bonus), be the Land Grant school, etc. So you could apply the “take away UVA” test to most of the other states and you would get a similar result. Take away University of Maryland College Park, for instance, and you are left with UMBC and Towson. The exception would be California, where if you took away Berkeley, you’d still have UCLA, UC San Diego, UCSF, etc.

    I think Virginia has pretty good quality and options (including fairly unique options like W&M and VMI) at the undergraduate level. What it does not have, in my view, is a system that produces a an equally impressive economic development windfall for the state. It just doesn’t have that cluster that provides the economic spark like Berkeley and UCSF in the Bay area or UT Austin.

    The most likely environment for the “cluster effect” in the state would be Northern Virginia, in my view, but GMU is 1) not a “flagship” and therefore always was competing with UVA and Tech for resources and 2) never seems to have hit its stride in any area.

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