SD26 - Making Connections: Matching Virginia Higher Education's Strengths with the Commonwealth's Needs

Executive Summary:
The 17-member Commission on the Future of Higher Education in Virginia met 10 times over the past 24 months. The commission heard testimony from the presidents of our colleges and universities, from the faculty, from high-ranking staff of our senior institutions, from national experts and from the Council of Higher Education, the Department of Economic Development and the Center for Innovative Technology. Our meetings also included a three-site interactive televised session in May of 1995.

Three members of the Senate and five members of the House of Delegates served on the commission, along with the Secretary of Education, the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Council of Higher Education, a member of the State Council, the Director of the State Council, and four citizens appointed by the Governor.

The commission arrived at five general conclusions:

• Our public colleges and universities must make substantial changes to convince the general public that higher education is operating as efficiently and effectively as possible.

-The commission wholeheartedly supports the "restructuring" process already begun at the institutions, and implores the institutions to understand' that the process has just started. Restructuring is not a fad. Restructuring has not "happened." While much already has been accomplished, restructuring actually has but begun, and progress by the institutions needs to be closely monitored for years to come.

• As higher education changes the way it conducts its business, the Commonwealth should consider changing its business relationship with higher education.

- The Council of Higher Education should develop a plan for consideration by the Governor and General Assembly that might grant selected institutions special independent status in state government.

- Such a plan, which would provide specific proposals for assigning greater responsibility for daily operations and long-term development of colleges and universities, should be prepared in consultation with the leadership of the institutions of higher education, with the central state agencies, and with the cognizant committees of the General Assembly.

- A post-audit administrative approach based on mutual public trust would seem to fit institutions that demonstrate that they have become more efficient and effective and have the resources to conduct their business with a high level of competency.

- Such institutions should be freed from stifling bureaucratic regulations and should be given a status in the Code of Virginia that reflects their independence and their accountability.

• Higher education in Virginia cannot be sustained at an acceptable level of quality without additional state support.

- An estimated 50,000 additional students are expected to enroll by the year 2007. State support, along with productivity gains, must keep pace with enrollment growth if we are to avoid the unwanted and undesirable options of mediocre programs and ill-prepared graduates.

- If the institutions fall behind in acquiring and exploiting technology as we enter the 21st century, then the institutions will lose their status as one of Virginia's brightest assets. Virginia's public colleges and universities should lead in technology, and that will require state support.

- Students with financial need deserve access to higher education. While Virginia has done well in recent years through appropriations for the Virginia Guaranteed Assistance Act and for general need-based financial aid, we can and should do better.

- The salary structure must be competitive to retain and attract quality faculty.

- The role of Virginia's community colleges differs from that of the senior institutions, and the Commonwealth should consider ways to strengthen funding for the community colleges that reflect their varied missions and responsibilities.

- And, as state support for public higher education grows, support for tuition assistance grants for Virginia students attending Virginia independent colleges and universities should grow proportionately.

• Tuition as a percent of the cost of education has become too high for undergraduate Virginians.

- Recent actions to reverse this trend should continue. Tuition increases for resident undergraduate students should not exceed cost of living increases, and the additional support higher education requires should come from the general fund.

• Virginia higher education is closely linked with the economic growth of the Commonwealth.

- Each institution of higher education has a role to play in promoting economic development in Virginia, and we should work to better define how each institution can best contribute, either to its region or to the state as a whole. State-wide efforts such as the Center for Innovative Technology must be encouraged and supported.

The rest of this report addresses these five general conclusions in greater detail. We have not attempted to provide a comprehensive picture of Virginia higher education or a detailed plan for its future. The Council of Higher Education, in consultation with the institutions, has responsibility for detailed planning and, in keeping with the autonomous nature of higher education, the Council -- with adequate budget and staff -- should be entrusted to discharge these responsibilities, as it has done so well over the years.

We have spoken to what we see to be the most pressing issues confronting Virginians as they consider the futures they want for their grandchildren. We hope that this report sparks conversations throughout the Commonwealth, for there is no subject that is more important than what we want succeeding generations to know and be able to do.