What It Takes to Build Virginia’s Talent Pipeline

House Speaker Kirk Cox

It’s time to give Virginia’s colleges and universities some “tough love,”  House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said yesterday.

The answer to sky-rocketing increases in the cost of attending college is not tuition freezes, caps, unfunded mandates or other one-size-fits-all measures like those that surfaced in the General Assembly last session, the Speaker said in a speech to the GO Virginia Foundation board meeting in Richmond.

But he added: “If the higher education institutions do not come together with the state government and the business community to address affordability in a meaningful and tangible way… if they do not support common-sense reforms like the bill passed by the House of Delegates last session to allow public comment before raising tuition… then I fear there will be little anyone can do to stop a wave of policy proposals along those very lines.”

Cox issued the warning while addressing the broader topic of the link between workforce development and economic development. In the most concrete proposal of his speech, he called for partnerships between government, business and individual higher education institutions that spell out (1) what the school will commit, (2) what the state will invest, and (3) what the business partners will contribute.

“We don’t need more people playing politics with the price of education, but we also don’t need people with their heads in the sand, pretending the problem doesn’t exist,” he said. “We need people partnering in practical ways to bring the price of education down!”

There is no silver bullet or quick fix on college affordability. We need to move forward on a range of solutions: alternative pathways; transfer programs; online options; cost-saving innovations; more efficient collaboration among institutions; more help for students through financial aid, TAG grants, and work-study opportunities and so on. …

In the institutional partnership agreements that I envision … in return for a financial commitment from the Commonwealth, each school will make transparent commitments concerning the four-year net cost of attendance for in-state undergraduates, the internship and work-study opportunities that will be provided, and the maximum student loan debt levels that any Virginia student may incur.

Virginians cannot expect tuition predictability and restraint at the campus level if the General Assembly cannot provide “adequate, reliable funding,” Cox said in a reference to erratic state support for higher education. But he placed much of the onus for declining affordability and access on the higher-ed institutions.

“Higher education is at a pivotal moment,” Cox said. “We have never needed our higher ed system more than we do now … because it is the key to the talent pipeline, and the talent pipeline is the key to the future. But, at the same time, higher ed’s political position has never been shakier.” The bond of trust between colleges and elected officials “has never been more at risk.”

If our colleges and their leaders don’t recognize the shift in public opinion on higher education…. if they don’t understand how the populist message is resonating…. and if they don’t come to the table seriously on the points of greatest concern — affordability and accountability — then it is very likely that the criticism will reach critical mass, and it will be impossible to maintain the progress we have made.

The talent pipeline. In one of the most comprehensive speeches on workforce development to come from a Republican legislator in recent years, Cox affirmed the need for an educational system that provides young Virginians with the skills they need to participate in a growing economy.

“What we hear from Virginia businesses, large and small, is this: The main reason their business is not growing is they can’t find qualified workers.” At the same time, Virginia is experiencing a brain drain — unable to find good jobs here, people are leaving for better opportunities elsewhere. For four straight years, he said, Virginia has experienced a “net loss of talent” to other states.

The “build it and they will come” approach is not only ineffective. It costs too much… is too resistant to innovation… moves too slowly to keep up with the fast-changing economy… and, frankly, is too old-school and uncool to appeal to eager, creative, tech-savvy young people.

Cox embraced the goal of making Virginia the Top State for Talent, similar to the long-term objective stated by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) to make Virginia the best educated state in the country. But he stressed that increasing the number of college graduates must be accompanied by efforts to provide grads with meaningful employment, or they will leave.

The Speaker called for “dramatically increasing” internships, coop programs and other work-study opportunities. Citing a WalletHub ranking, he noted that Virginia ranks a “dismal 42nd” among the 50 states in student aid and work-study opportunities.

As part of any workforce initiative, Cox said, Virginia will need to reach beyond traditional college-bound student populations. That means conferring more degrees and credentials upon veterans, adults with partial college credit, working adults retraining for new careers, and first-generation and under-represented student populations, especially those in poor urban and rural areas.

Empowering students as consumers. Virginia needs to empower students and their families as educational consumers, Cox said. Colleges need to be transparent about graduation rates and time to completion. They need to track student success after graduation and report the numbers. They need to tell students and families up-front not only what it costs to earn a particular degree or training program, but what kind of return on investment they can expect.

The return-on-investment information is absolutely critical. On the one hand, the $30,000 average debt that students incur seems intolerably high. On the other hand, the average price of a new car today is about $32,000, and most folks buy multiple cars over their lifetimes. So it matters a lot what you get for that college investment.

SCHEV collects considerable data already on graduation rates, student loans, and wage outcomes. Cox did not specify which additional data sets he advocates collecting or how he thinks that data might be presented.

While Cox appeared to be most concerned about holding colleges and universities accountable, he also demanded more of businesses. “What we need from you and other top business leaders in this state is hands-on engagement and support at every stop of the process,” he told the GO Virginia board members.

Wrapping up, he said: “There simply is no more important work we can do in this Commonwealth developing our talent pipeline, ensuring that every Virginian has affordable access to it, and producing measurable results for the people of Virginia.”

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11 responses to “What It Takes to Build Virginia’s Talent Pipeline

  1. “It’s time to give Virginia’s colleges and universities some “tough love,” House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said yesterday.”

    Well, my day just brightened.

    We have finally found a real honest to goodness leader in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Thank you Speaker Kirk Cox for stepping up to the plate to bat for the benefit of Virginia’s citizens.

    Real elected leaders can do amazingly positive things for citizens otherwise left abused for years by a corrupted system. I sense those citizens have found their man. We’ll see.

  2. Well..like many speeches from politicians – they have enough nuance to appeal to a wide variety of folks but I simply do not think jawboning will change Higher Ed on prices. Virginia is not some stand-alone state – it’s part of a 50-state environment and it’s going to not do more nor less than their competitors.

    What that means to me is that Virginia needs to direct their aid to students – with strings to encourage Community College for those who would need remedial help at the 4 years – and protection from opportunistic for-profit outfits.. I’d make the aid ONLY to Community Colleges and would make the aid “free” if they successfully complete an occupational certificate.

    That still lets them go on to a 4-year but it also helps make them a taxpayer in the interim.

    We have to stop subsidizing 4-year college for folks who want their kids to get a 4 yr degree no matter what… that’s not a good use of tax dollars IMHO.

    It’s also totally irresponsible for both Higher Ed institutions – as well as the State of Virginia to preside over a system that funnels people into lifelong debt for degrees that have no demand in the economy.

    K-12 is a fundamental right to all kids – the core of equal opportunity –

    Higher Ed OUGHT TO BE all about tax dollars invested for economic return not a slush fund for those who want a degree and have no clue or motivation for what they want to do after they graduate.

  3. The goals Speaker Cox outlined are not very different from the goals behind the Top Jobs For the Twenty-First Century (TJ21) legislation pushed through by Governor McDonnell. I suspect these discussions are as old a tax-subsidized higher education anywhere. In many states there is a strong central management of the state schools (CA, NC) but Virginia has chosen to give them more autonomy, and Madison recently announced it will be the next one to push for a higher level of independence. A governor who is fired up and willing to play hard ball can make a huge difference (because he or she picks the boards) and a top legislator like the Speaker carries a smaller stick, but it’s not inconsiderable. You probably should view Cox’s comments in conjunction with the pounding delivered to the schools in the House Appropriations Committee a week or so ago. Carrot and stick.

    Talk is good, but bills and budget language are where the work gets done. As I’ve noted before, and we had these chats at SCHEV, the deep question is who are the customers and who are the shareholders in this major and vital enterprise. There is some recognition of the students and families as the customers, but almost zero recognition of the Virginia taxpayer as shareholders. A portion of my taxes has gone to each of those schools for 40+ years now. I’ve supplemented that with personal donations to my school (I won’t count the tuition payments to three others.) Shareholder Value is what matters to me, and Cox outlines a reasonable vision of that.

    • These are excellent comments Steve.

      I suggest that if the Governor wanted to use his remaining time in office to make a true and lasting difference in the lives and future of all Virginians, he would step across the aisle and join with Speaker Cox, to fix this problem in a bipartisan way.

      And that both of them working together fix it on the basis that you have implicitly suggested, by answering the question you raise:

      “Who are the customers and who are the shareholders in this major and vital enterprise called public education?”

      The only honest answer is plain:

      The students and their families are the customers, and the Virginia taxpayers who pay the rest of the bills are the shareholders. No one else should have a legitimate, much less dominate, seat at this table. No one – not school administrators, not boards, not business, nor professors, no one’s private interests should trump these critical customers and shareholders, the ones who pay the bills and own the assets of the operation, that is the students, their families, along with the taxpayers of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

      Today’s rot in the systems is that the legitimate interests of these students, their families, and the taxpayers are being ignored and thwarted in order to feed private and illegitimate interests and public expense. This is wrong. These are public institutions of higher learning. Not private institutions.

      This is how I read your comment. And why I think it goes to the heart of the matter, and why I suggest that until that central question you raised is answered as you suggest, Virginia will have a deeply corrupt and twisted out of shape system of public higher education unworthy of public support.

      Steve, You might erase your double comment copied in below. Reed

      • I’m not seeing the double comment….will check on the main website.

        There are other “shareholders”, in fairness. Let’s just say the taxpayers who in some cases now have been spending on these schools for more than a century (and have paid for much of the building stock, and absorb the tax preferences) have preferred shares.

  4. Larry is right that driving a bunch of students into debt is not shareholder value. Somebody else benefits there. I recently read that home ownership is one metric which has not recovered this the crisis started a decade ago, and I’m sure the levels of student debt are one reason why.

    • There are “other shareholders” in fairness, Steve say.

      Yes, Steve, I agree.

      But the real question is who’s interest is paramount? What is the tail versus what is the dog? The state of Virginia keeps getting this important distinction this mixed up.

      Thus, Virginia business has significant interests here, and perhaps too an important roll to play here, given the current incompetence of higher and lower education in Virginia today. So business is rightfully part of the Speakers plan. This is because, despite ever higher tuition and costs, Virginia’s system of public education is not producing employable graduates capable or willing to perform decently paying jobs that allow them to succeed in society in anywhere near sufficient numbers for them and for us to thrive.

      Why?

      The short answer is because the system of higher education in power today serves its own interests first, and the interests of allied businesses second, before it even begins to think about how it serves its students. And so it fails to give kids the education and moral training and skills they need today to become productive citizens. For example, university educators and their allied business build ever more costly research infrastructure, at the expense of the students’ education who pay much of the bill for that research.

      As a result:

      Now it has gotten so bad, that businesses perhaps have to step in to help fill the gross void created by Virginia incompetent system of lower and higher education, an incompetence that is now forcing business to educate the kids, and give them the skills that businesses needs to thrive and stay in the state.

      That help by business is fine, except now who will be looking after the kids and taxpayers here, their best interests. Typically in Virginia, no one does.

      That is why SCHEV has largely failed in its mission. SCHEV far too often acts like a chamber of commerce promoting the business interest of higher education and its many allies (including Federal Gov. and private interests) who feed off of the system of higher education for their own selfish advantage. Research for example is far too often paid for out of kids tuition and research far to often draws the great majority in higher educations resources – time, money, faculty, staff, and buildings – away from the education of kids. All this acts to the great detriment of kids, their families, and taxpayers. This is particularly true with Va.’s universities.

      This gross misapplication of public monies and resources has got to stop!

      Today’s paradigm must change. Today’s standard operating procedures must change. The entire system and the way it operates must be reoriented towards the interests of students and taxpayers first and foremost.

      If this reorientation is done first, then the best interests of business, the state, and its taxpayers will follow in due course. But first we have to stop thinking about making money for private special interests, including those interest within higher education, at the expense of students, and also this applies to the many kids, the great majority of them, I believe who, whether in or out of school, need a real education, and real employable skills, but are not getting them in schools or being served at all in Schools, far too often, the great majority, who are now actively being harmed by the system.

      No, this is not about what our educators or their systems, or businesses need! Not at all!

      It is about what our kids need, and our taxpayers need. It is about building kids who can survive and thrive in the modern world. Call them human capital, if you want, but still it is not all about, or substantially about, someone else’s financial gain, or advantage, at the expense of our children. That is theft.

  5. Well.. I also go back to the idea that Virginia Higher Ed is not an island – it’s very much a part of a national higher ed ecosystem and it’s not going to stray too far from the rest of the herd.

    Not optimistic that Northam is able to do much more than any of his predecessors… I think it is primarily the GA but while I see lots of griping and innuendo from critics – like a lot of other tough issues I don’t see a manifesto that people as a group are behind.

    I think we’ve got a lot of folks who have a lot of different ideas of what to do but they cannot or will not compromise and get behind one thing.

    Part of it is leadership – which Cox is, IMHO, feigning unless I see actual legislation from him that has a large number of others signing on to.

    I’m generally not in favor of the Govt “forcing” Higher Ed to set arbitrary prices.. like just picking a number like 10K per year out of a Hat.

    Here’s a telling aspect to this. One would think that in the current environment that Private schools would have the most flexibility to calibrate what people want and instead private schools are even worse than public schools on price points and other things some in BR advocate for.

    I continue to think that giving money directly to Higher Ed with “expectations” for things like price is nutty… it’s like paying Walmart a fee to keep prices low!! Higher Ed is selling a product. Any belief that they are supposed to be “noble” is snickersville…. When they say they will “help” students with “easy” financial aid – it’s like the car salesman regaling you about all that “cash back” you get when you buy the car. It’s like we’re all goobers from back and beyond!

  6. We ought to be clear on the economy and jobs available. MANY of the jobs the economy does have and are not filled are NOT 4-year degree jobs but rather technical jobs that require a Community College or Technical School level of education.

    The problem we have with Higher Ed is too many people who think a generic degree will get them a good job in the economy – and they are more than willing to go into debt up to their eyeballs and the Universities are more than willing to accommodate them.

    And this is not going to change as long as there are more applicants than there are Freshmen dorms!!!!!

    Much of what higher ed offers – to be brutally honest – is what their customers want and will actually buy – and unless and until enrollments plummet – why would they change?

    The more strident critics are talking about things the average public does not know or understand and that kind of change is not in the cards – IMHO.

    Money talks and dogs bark!

    As long as Govt is willing to hand over money directly to the Universities and people are willing to go into debt up to their eyeballs – these institutions have little motivation to change.

    The easiest way to change them is to re-direct some of the would-be attendees into the Community College system to get the kind of education that WILL get them a job in the economy.

    But all those other changes the more strident critics want – I dunno.. unless a large percentage of the public buys into it – I think Higher Ed just ignores it.

  7. “I recently read that home ownership is one metric which has not recovered this the crisis started a decade ago, and I’m sure the levels of student debt are one reason why.”

    The Fed is projecting that student loan debt is going to increasingly depress economic growth. You can see in one of the graphics that mortage debt of student loan borrowers is declining. It is being crowded out by other debt like student loans. https://www.federalreserve.gov/econres/notes/feds-notes/student-loan-debt-and-aggregate-consumption-growth-20180221.htm

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