Local Commentary

Senator Dick Saslaw’s Richmond Report

saslaw-fcnpLast month I spent some time in this column discussing K-12 education and new pathways to college and careers for our Commonwealth’s high school students. This month we turn our focus to higher education.

There are many challenges across the higher education landscape, but three stand out as having adverse effects not just on student success but also Virginia’s economy. First, there is a large percentage of graduating high school seniors who are not college-ready in the basic disciplines as well as STEM. In 2012, nationwide only 25 percent of students who took the ACT test met college readiness benchmarks in English, reading, math, and science. Lack of college readiness greatly reduces the chance a student has of eventually earning a degree. Those who do succeed often find themselves facing the second problem – possessing a degree or skillset that is not competitive in today’s high-tech, global economy. While finishing college remains an important milestone, the simple truth is that structural economic changes over the last 25 years have dramatically reduced the demand for some majors and increased the demand for others. Finally, the skyrocketing cost of college and associated high debt loans often saddle graduates for years and serve as a drag on economic output. Just last month the Wall Street Journal reported that the class of 2016 is the most debt-burdened class in history, with the average college graduate carrying $37,173 in student debt. Nationwide, 40 million Americans collectively now owe $1.2 trillion in student debt, forcing them to postpone buying a home, getting married, or having children.

What lessons can be learned from these three challenges? K-12 and college counselors and administrators should take care to inform students of the job and career potential associated with various educational pathways. Furthermore, while four-year universities are a good choice for some right out of high school, often community colleges, with career and technical education pathways and low tuition rates, are a superior option. Nursing, sonography, electrical repair, and communication equipment operation are all examples of fields with median pay over $65,000 that only require an associate’s degree or industry credential. I’m excited to add that this year the General Assembly provided $12+ million in new funding for a pioneering industry credential incentive program at Virginia’s community colleges.

For those wishing to eventually transfer to a four-year institution, the value in the Virginia Community College System’s tuition rates is hard to beat. Thus, a student might conceivably save thousands of dollars by earning a transferable associate’s degree at a community college and then completing the additional 60 credits needed for a bachelor’s at a four-year institution.

There are many gold-standard public universities and colleges in the Commonwealth. It’s vital that these universities and colleges remain accessible to all Virginians. So I’m proud that the General Assembly increased funding for public higher education in the new biennial budget. This increased funding will help keep tuition affordable for families. Additionally, a new multi-billion dollar bond package will ensure that the Commonwealth’s educational facilities remain at a world class level.

Last month, I stressed that every high school student in the Commonwealth should have a pathway to learn the skills necessary to compete and thrive in a 21st century global economy. Higher education, be it in the form of a bachelor’s degree from a four-year institution, or an industry credential from a community college, is a vital part of any student’s pathway to success. It’s also a vital part of the economic vitality of the Commonwealth. Countless studies demonstrate the link between educational attainment and higher productivity and wages. A skilled, educated workforce attracts new business. And high-wage workers contribute more in taxes during their professional careers.

On July 1, Virginia starts a new fiscal year. At that time, most new laws passed by the General Assembly and signed by the Governor will be enacted in the Code. The media will be highlighting the bulk of those new measures. I will also post links on www.dicksaslaw.com to help you become familiar with the new laws.


Senator Saslaw represents the 35th District in the Virginia State Senate. He may be emailed at district35@senate.virginia.gov.