Ralph Northam's plan for

Higher education

Making Virginia the best state for talent:
The Northam Plan for Transforming Higher Education

Affordability, accessibility, and innovation for all Virginians

Higher education is the lynchpin of the New Virginia Economy, producing a return on investment greater than any other public investment. In fact, each dollar spent on Virginia’s public higher education system produces $21 in greater gross state product (GSP) and returns $1.92 to the commonwealth’s treasury.

But more important than these economic contributions is what a high-quality, affordable education means to future opportunities for Virginians across the commonwealth. Every Virginian deserves access to a high-quality, affordable education after high school, so he or she can succeed in the New Virginia Economy. To achieve this important objective requires greater state investment in higher education, a commitment to reduce the cost of obtaining a degree and the resulting debt loads of our graduates, and more affordable alternative pathways.

In the last 10 years in Virginia, average higher education costs have soared 70 percent at public four-year universities and 60 percent at community colleges. After the Great Recession and sequestration, the economy has slowly rebounded with 99 percent of new jobs going to people with some college experience. With high school no longer the finish line combined with Virginia having the 7th highest university costs and 14th highest community college costs, many Virginians feel stuck with no opportunity to earn wages to support themselves or a family. The state’s promise to pay 67 percent of higher education costs has slipped to an average share of 53 percent, leaving families struggling to foot the rest of the bill. High student loan debt has crippled our students’ ability to own cars and houses and financially contribute to communities by local spending and charitable donations.

As governor, Ralph Northam will strengthen our Virginia system of higher education by committing to invest more in our colleges and universities to ensure access, affordability, and excellence. Our colleges and universities are one of the commonwealth’s best assets, educating and preparing our citizens to succeed in the New Virginia Economy as good citizens, leaders, and problem-solvers. Our colleges and universities are also a magnet to attract some of the most talented men and women from around the country—and the world—to come to Virginia, attend a Virginia college or university, and then stay in our state and contribute to it economically as citizens of the commonwealth.


Tuition predictability: Virginia Four-Year Promise

One of the best things about Virginia is our great colleges and universities. They need to do more and the commonwealth needs to do more to keep college affordable. A tuition freeze is an easy gimmick—but we all know how the story ends: It won’t work, just like it hasn’t worked in the past. A Four-Year Promise is what we need. We should give our students and their families certainty as to what the cost of a four-year education will be. Our public universities will guarantee level tuition for returning, in-state, full-time students for a four-year term, and in return the commonwealth will provide increased direct-cost (instructional) funding to our public universities. To the extent possible, universities will guarantee financial aid packages will be the same all four years. Governor Northam will work with the Council of Presidents and Boards of Visitors to assure that annual increases for incoming freshmen will remain affordable and within reason. This will provide incentives for all parties to work toward increasing four-year graduation rates, lowering the costs of higher education for Virginians, and providing financial certainty on what the full four-year cost will be. Families need to be able to plan for one of the most important investments they will ever make.

G3–Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back

Because of the high demand for a skilled labor force that needs some college training, the state will fund last-dollar tuition and fees for any Virginian to pursue a workforce training credential or an associate degree in one of the targeted, new-collar job areas like IT and healthcare. The community college system will deliver that instruction, training, and mentoring, and ensure that each student in the program obtains a degree or certification.

Each applicant will be assigned a mentor to make sure Virginians know where to go for the right credentialing. Those mentors will be a hand to guide them through the training and a counselor to help them find an in-demand job after graduation. They’ll help place Virginians in the right credentialing program, whether at a community college for a cybersecurity job or in a union apprenticeship for a skilled trade. This will help boost training completion rates and make the transition to the workforce easier.

Upon completing the free associate degree or workforce credential, the student will commit to one year of public service with a variety of options — working for a local or state government entity, a non-profit organization, or a startup or small business, or could go to work in an economically depressed area of the commonwealth where their new skills are needed.

Student borrower’s bill of rights

Based on legislation introduced in the 2017 General Assembly session, Governor Northam will work with the General Assembly to create legislation that requires licensure of qualified education loan servicers in the commonwealth. This will help protect students and their families from unscrupulous companies that prey on students seeking to borrow money for college and provide the commonwealth with additional enforcement mechanisms to go after those companies. Additionally, creating a statewide student loan ombudsman will provide students and recent graduates a go-to resource for information and support legislation from last session, SB 1053 (Janet Howell) and HB1915 (Marcus Simon).

Increased transparency for students and families

With over 40 for-profit colleges enrolling more than 60,000 Virginians, Governor Northam will direct the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) to be the watchdog for Virginians pursuing post-secondary education and training from proprietary institutions. The commonwealth will create a one-stop-shop website to post information related to for-profit colleges so prospective students and families can get the facts. The website will include consumer complaints, annual certification renewals and accreditation reports, loan default rates, graduation rates, and average wages of graduates for select years post graduations. New guidelines will be set to make sure tuition dollars at for-profits will directly support students.

The Northam administration will create a standard award letter, similar to the USDOE Financial Aid Shopping Sheet, for all colleges and universities in Virginia, including public, private, and for-profits. All too often, for-profit colleges send out an award letter to students with grants and loans mixed together with low, upfront expenses. Potential students don’t realize that the majority of the “award” is a high interest loan. If all award letters were formatted the same, it would be easier for students and their families to compare full expenses and potential debt amongst public and private entities before committing.

Expand shared services efficiencies

To create efficiencies and cost savings, a voluntary shared services center would be created to support financial aid and back office services and business transactions for the smaller universities and colleges. This center would also serve as a centralized collection agency for universities to reconcile student accounts that are 60 to 90 days overdue before sending claims to high-interest rate collection agencies.


Continue to support our HBCUs

According to recent SCHEV data, the needle hasn’t moved on the number of African Americans that earn a college education in Virginia. The Northam administration will continue to promote HBCUs by financially supporting pathways through the universities to high-demand job opportunities. Programs like cybersecurity at Norfolk State University will be recognized and marketed across the state. The administration will focus on dramatically improving on-time graduation rates at these universities. Performance incentives will also be given to colleges and universities who serve and graduate first-generation, veterans, and underrepresented students.

Increase access to affordable online learning and open education resources (free textbooks)

Currently, Online Virginia is a partnership between George Mason University and Old Dominion University that serves independently about 11,000 online students. The Virginia Community College System has more than 75,000 students enrolled in online courses through one of the 23 colleges or through their Shared Service Distance Learning Center. The Northam administration will include the VCCS and other interested universities to Online Virginia to build affordable and accessible pathways to a bachelor’s degree with an emphasis on adults with some credit but no degree. The commonwealth will create and market a centralized website for online learning at all the public colleges and universities, similar to what Georgia has done with its “Georgia ONmyLINE,” which provides information on all online degrees from community colleges and universities.

With the rising costs of textbooks, many colleges and universities are using open education resources, which are quality, free to low-cost course materials that replace textbooks. Virginia will build a statewide repository to share these resources amongst the colleges and universities to save millions of dollars for our students and families.

Invest in rural Virginia

Part of Governor Northam’s seven-point plan to revive Southwest Virginia is to invest in University of Virginia at Wise to build out programs in high-demand job fields like cybersecurity, energy, computer science, and unmanned aerial systems. This public-private partnership would attract talent to the region to improve recruiting and retention of businesses and drive economic development.


Increase research capacity and commercialization of new discoveries

University research innovation presents an enormous and unique opportunity to diversify Virginia’s economy, create long-term, sustainable, high-income job growth, and make Virginia the best state for startups and scaleups. Top scientific talent that embraces commercialization needs to be recruited and retained at our universities. These innovators will bring new and significant federal grants and industry funding and collaborations, attract like talent to our universities and our state, create employment, spin off entrepreneurial and investment opportunities, and attract top-tier management and capital to benefit research and industry. To make Virginia the best state for innovators and entrepreneurs requires that a strategic plan be developed identifying current strengths, opportunities, and gaps. To maximize the economic impact of our universities, Virginia’s core research resources need to be more visible and easily accessible among the university researchers, as well as to industry, entrepreneurs, and investors.

Use universities as centers for entrepreneurship and regional growth

Many universities promote researchers to build and commercialize products that can benefit the universities and the regional communities where they are located. Infrastructure needs to be built or improved to support research and entrepreneurial activity. This includes assets inventory (expertise, equipment, data bases, analytic tools, and platforms); state-of-the-art lab space, both wet and dry; accommodative conflict of interest policies; clear rules for fair use of public facilities for private use; and IT networks and storage.

Currently, millennials have the lowest level of entrepreneurship in American history. There is a huge need to encourage students, especially young women, to be innovative and start new 21st century businesses. Embedding entrepreneurship curriculum and skills in multiple disciplines across a campus builds a culture a creativity and encourages students to contribute ideas to society.

Our colleges and universities are also hubs for regional economic growth and are serving this important role to accelerate job creation and build stronger regional economies across Virginia. The Northam administration will support and recognize the critical role our colleges and universities play in preparing Virginians for the workforce, creating new discoveries and new jobs, and serving as important anchors to our regional communities.

Brand Virginia as the best state for talent and research 

The excellence of the Virginia higher education system presents a unique opportunity to develop a brand and marketing strategy to future students, researchers, businesses, and international organizations. Whether it is creating clusters of key research faculty, attracting the best and brightest students, or recruiting cutting edge entrepreneurs, Virginia will be a destination for top talent.

The marketing plan will first start with raising awareness of the need for post-secondary credentials from a workforce certification to a graduate degree. Even though Virginia ranks 8th with degree attainment, many people, especially in rural Virginia, have only earned a high school diploma. The Northam administration will support community colleges in developing a cohesive marketing strategy that aligns to the larger, statewide brand, as well as raising awareness of affordable pathways to a good-paying career.

To help attract top researchers, entrepreneurs, and students, universities will work together to identify statewide collaborations and strengths of the research community. These existing or newly created alliances will have a huge positive economic impact by increasing public and private research dollars to the state, as well as recruiting new businesses that bring jobs to the commonwealth.

Download the plan.

Read more:
Always faithful
7 college students on why they support Ralph Northam for governor
My plan for economic growth in rural Virginia
G3 — Get Skilled — Get a Job — Give Back

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