Local Commentary

Senator Dick Saslaw’s Richmond Report

saslaw-fcnpThere has been yet another human carnage in this nation. It is long past the time to talk about the why and how of the latest mass shooting. There is no place for assault weapons in the hands of anyone outside of our deployed military personnel. Let the conversation begin and move forward with appropriate outcomes.

The thrust of this month’s column involves public education in the Commonwealth. Educational achievement continues to be the biggest indicator for success in the workplace and in life. Studies show that Associate and Bachelor degree holders earn significantly more over the course of their professional life. In the New Virginia Economy, we are retooling and looking at ways to prepare the workforce for the jobs of the future.

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that the average Associate’s degree and Bachelor’s degree holders earn $400,000 and $900,000 more, respectively, than a mere high school graduate does over the course of a professional lifetime. But what many of us do not know is that education in our nation, and right here in the Commonwealth, is undergoing rapid change – change that is fraught with challenges but also flush with potential.

By and large, Virginia has an excellent public education system. Thanks to Governor McAuliffe and his administration, the percentage of fully accredited K-12 public schools in the Commonwealth grew from 77 percent to 86 percent in just the last three and a half years. Virginia sports 15 public universities and a robust community college system. The Commonwealth also boasts the second highest public four-year graduation rate in the nation.

Beneath the surface of these sterling statistics though lie some troubling trends. Higher education funding in Virginia is essentially flat – in FY07 the General Assembly allocated some $1.63 billion to higher ed. Ten years later that number was only $1.68 billion. Meanwhile the affordability of college in Virginia continues to decline, especially for low and middle-income families. Not surprisingly, the average student debt load of a public four-year student has increased nearly 40 percent to $28,500 in just the last seven years.

The current national and regional landscape, with a renewed focus on “middle skill” jobs, lends itself to alternate pathways to educational attainment and a fulfilling career. But new pathways through Virginia’s community colleges and technical centers offer shorter, more affordable options to students in search of well-paying jobs.

Community colleges offer more than a hundred degree and certificate pathways that enable a student to eventually transfer to a public four-year institution or earn an associated workforce certification or credential. The tuition savings are substantial and produce comparable results as Northern Virginia Community College offers programs such as Cybersecurity, Engineering, and Nursing with robust earnings for graduates.

The New Economy Workforce Credential Grant Program is an innovative approach to creating and sustaining a supply of credentialed workers crucial to attracting and retaining new businesses in Virginia. The program aims to fill high-demand, often middle skill, occupations while making the attainment of these credentials more affordable for students. The program dovetails with Governor McAuliffe’s New Virginia Economy Workforce Initiative, which last year awarded 50,361 workforce credentials aligned with high-paying jobs in science, technology, engineering, math, and healthcare (STEM-H), a remarkable 36 percent increase in just three years.

I’ve spent every day of my many years in elected office working to ensure that our students receive the support they need to succeed. Be it appropriate levels of state funding for education or innovative pathways to well-paying jobs and careers, public education is the best use of taxpayer resources. There’s no better time to invest in Virginia’s children, workforce, and future. Ralph Northam is unequivocally the candidate who will make that investment and ensure that all of Virginia’s children have access to a quality, affordable education.


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