Virginia as Best-Educated State – a Worthy Goal?

How does one determine "best-educated state" status? This map shows top states by percentage of population with advanced degrees.
How does one determine “best-educated state” status? This Wikipedia map shows top states by percentage of population with advanced degrees.

The Virginia Plan for Higher Education, the strategic plan for Virginia’s public colleges and universities, has set a bold objective: to make Virginia the best-educated state in the nation by 2030.

To accomplish this goal, the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) plans to increase the number of degrees and workforce credentials granted from 80,000 per year to 118,000 by 2030 — 1.5 million in all. There are many interesting facets to this plan, particularly SCHEV’s ideas on how to provide affordable access, and I hope to get around to blogging about them in time.

But for now, I want to focus on the goal of making Virginia the best-educated state in the country. What does that mean? And is it even an appropriate goal?

By some metrics, Virginia is a well-educated state. Measured by the percentage of the 25-and-older population with an advanced degree, Virginia is the 4th best educated state in the country, according to Wikipedia. Measured by bachelor’s degrees, we rank No. 6. Ranked by high school graduates, the Old Dominion falls to 29th.

The higher education establishment cannot get Virginia to No. 1 entirely on its own. The Commonwealth needs to increase the pipeline of high school graduates seeking degrees and workforce certifications. Fortunately, the gap between Virginia (where 86.6% of the population 25 years or older has a high school degree) and No. 1 Massachusetts (89.0%) is less then three percentage points. That’s a ravine, not a chasm. It should be bridgeable.

Next issue: What do we gain by churning out thousands of graduates with bachelor’s and advanced degrees? Educated people, like anyone else, need jobs. And if they can’t find jobs in their home state, they will move to a place where they can find them. Thus, Massachusetts, the best educated state in the country as measured by college degrees, suffered a net domestic out-migration between 2010 and 2012 of 9,721 people. Likewise, No. 2-ranking Maryland suffered a net loss of 2,540. By contrast, Virginia enjoyed a net gain of 22,299. The stats don’t tell us how well educated Virginia’s newcomers were, but it is a truism that better educated people are more geographically mobile overall than their less-educated counterparts, so it’s a good bet that they improved the state’s average educational achievement.

States can create more well-educated people than local labor markets can absorb. If Virginia’s economy doesn’t create jobs for those well-educated people to fill, we’re spending millions of dollars to educate citizens who leave the Old Dominion. Here’s the concern:  SCHEV selected the goal of 1.5 million degrees and certifications as a way to get to the No. 1 “best educated state,” not because there is a demonstrated demand for 1.5 million degrees and certifications.

Here’s how the 2015 annual report justifies the best-educated-state goal:

Becoming the best-educated state supports the future prosperity of Virginia, its citizens and its regions. An educated population and well-trained workforce increase economic competitiveness, improve the lives of individuals and support greater community engagement. The best-educated state means that Virginia supports higher education at all levels. This spectrum includes workforce credentials, such as industry certifications, state licensures, apprenticeships, and certificates, as well as traditional degrees.

That’s it. Without more data, we don’t know if becoming the best educated state will contribute to the state’s economic development or will steer resources into an unnecessary and expensive expansion of Virginia’s higher ed establishment.

There is abundant anecdotal evidence that there are widespread skills shortages in certain occupations. So, clearly, there is a need to ramp up education/training in specific areas. Many if not most of these skills can be delivered by community college-level certifications and associate degrees. Whether becoming the “best educated state in the country” will address those specific skills or churn out locally unemployable college graduates is an open question.

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5 responses to “Virginia as Best-Educated State – a Worthy Goal?”

  1. Tough questions, Jim. We all know employers are attracted to where the educated people are, but also, people in the workforce will get the education they see that good jobs demand. Chicken and egg. We know that globalization is causing our job market to shift away from jobs that can be automated and towards jobs that require intelligence, flexibility and communication, but also, we just elected a President who ran on a platform of rejecting global trade and reviving American manufacturing. Action and reaction.

    I come back to the Tennessee solution: free community-college education, an expansion of the current free-through-high-school model, offering courses with an eye to what the job market offers today, and another to the expected job market a generation from now.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    Anyone remember the Myers Briggs Test? I always thought it was at least a data point for folks even if it wasn’t indicating what they’d like to do !!!

    I was struck in a couple of recent TV interviews of folks who voted for Trump and had been displaced in their jobs and their almost vehement view that they did NOT want to “learn” the 21st century jobs – they wanted their old ones back because that’s all they really knew how to do and they sure as heck weren’t going to become someone who sat at a computer screen to do “work”.

    I don’t know what you do with these folks – as well as their kids.

    BUT – I ALSO don’t know what you do with folks that want to go to college but don’t want to take “hard” courses that involve higher level analysis and problem solving skills ..

    In fact, what they want is a brand name degree like UVA but no courses that are going to threaten them with a bad grade … and lower their GPA.

    To a certain extent – they’re not any better than the Trump Blue-collar folks – same church – different pew.

    so … no unemployment goodies for those that won’t take job-retraining – in a skill that is in demand near where they live


    no college loans for folks that don’t want to take the courses that lead to the degreed skills that employers are looking for.

    we have to incentivize everyone to get not only an education – but THE education that the labor market wants and we have to STOP giving goodies to those who want the goodies but don’t want to be serious about job.

    Here in BR – we have “outrage” about men who sit at home unemployed and won’t take job-retraining for jobs that actually exist in their community – but we have no such similar outrage for the kids slurping up thousands of dollars in loans for generic but “brand name” degrees.

    everyone should be getting a haircut here.. everyone.

    every kid in K-12 should be mandated to go to post K-12 school – no excuses. you get a occupational certificate or you go to college and you DO take the courses that lead to jobs not serving lattes … for tips..or driving Uber and living in your parents basement.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      I agree that people have a responsibility to take advantage of education and training where available and to develop marketable skills. Like most things in life, there are duties and obligations that come with rights and benefits.

      And how about some public service announcements on various media that inform the public as to what skills are in demand and expected to be in demand and the perils of not learning one. I think PSAs did help make the public more conscious of the perils of smoking. Why not the perils of not learning marketable skills – be they brain surgery, airplane mechanics, etc.?

      Also, how about requiring all post secondary schools that get any federal money to report a rolling average of the number of students working in their field (chemical engineering to French to art history to cosmetology) one year after graduation?

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    I like TMT’s idea(s) and I’d like to see every college required to report to prospective applicants – not only what jobs the grads got in what fields including the Starbucks crowd.

    Many folks who go to college have an entitlement outlook – they don’t know what they’ll end up doing – but they’re “entitled” if they got that degree and if it is a UVA degree with a 3.0 or better – it ought to be a “lock”.

    One further suggestion – a SAT type graduation test –

    Analytical skills to research a topic, develop a project plan and timeline, and draw conclusions from research results.

    Science skills to break down a complex scientific system into smaller parts, recognize cause and effect relationships, and defend opinions using facts.

    Mathematic skills for calculations and measurements.
    Attention to detail to follow a standard blueprint, record data accurately, or write instructions.

    Technical skills to troubleshoot the source of a problem, repair a machine or debug an operating system, and computer capabilities to stay current on appropriate software and equipment.

    Communication and cooperation skills to listen to customer needs or interact with project partners.

    Creative abilities to solve problems and develop new ideas.

    Leadership skills to lead projects or help customers.

    Organization skills to keep track of lots of different information

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: skills employers are looking for and can directly validate – versus a compiled package of “content knowledge” formally called a high school diploma, occupational certificate or a BA or BS college degree of unknown quality with respect to the skills.

    Is there a way to “rate” a prospective employee on their abilities and accomplishments in those stated skills?

    If such a test were available would employers require it to be taken as a condition of consideration of employment?

    If employers did this – would it change what students would take in the way of courses and their other activities?

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