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Virginia as Best-Educated State – A Worthy Goal?

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The Virginia Plan for Higher Education, the strategic plan for Virginia’s public colleges and universities, has set a bold objective: to make Virginia the best-educated state in the nation by 2030.

To accomplish this goal, the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) plans to increase the number of degrees and workforce credentials granted from 80,000 per year to 118,000 by 2030 — 1.5 million in all. There are many interesting facets to this plan, particularly SCHEV’s ideas on how to provide affordable access, and I hope to get around to blogging about them in time.

But for now, I want to focus on the goal of making Virginia the best-educated state in the country. What does that mean? And is it even an appropriate goal?

By some metrics, Virginia is a well-educated state. Measured by the percentage of the 25-and-older population with an advanced degree, Virginia is the 4th best educated state in the country, according to Wikipedia. Measured by bachelor’s degrees, we rank No. 6. Ranked by high school graduates, the Old Dominion falls to 29th.

The higher education establishment cannot get Virginia to No. 1 entirely on its own. The Commonwealth needs to increase the pipeline of high school graduates seeking degrees and workforce certifications. Fortunately, the gap between Virginia (where 86.6% of the population 25 years or older has a high school degree) and No. 1 Massachusetts (89.0%) is less then three percentage points. That’s a ravine, not a chasm. It should be bridgeable.

Next issue: What do we gain by churning out thousands of graduates with bachelor’s and advanced degrees? Educated people, like anyone else, need jobs. And if they can’t find jobs in their home state, they will move to a place where they can find them. Thus, Massachusetts, the best educated state in the country as measured by college degrees, suffered a net domestic out-migration between 2010 and 2012 of 9,721 people. Likewise, No. 2-ranking Maryland suffered a net loss of 2,540. By contrast, Virginia enjoyed a net gain of 22,299. The stats don’t tell us how well educated Virginia’s newcomers were, but it is a truism that better educated people are more geographically mobile overall than their less-educated counterparts, so it’s a good bet that they improved the state’s average educational achievement.

States can create more well-educated people than local labor markets can absorb. If Virginia’s economy doesn’t create jobs for those well-educated people to fill, we’re spending millions of dollars to educate citizens who leave the Old Dominion. Here’s the concern:  SCHEV selected the goal of 1.5 million degrees and certifications as a way to get to the No. 1 “best educated state,” not because there is a demonstrated demand for 1.5 million degrees and certifications.

Here’s how the 2015 annual report justifies the best-educated-state goal:

Becoming the best-educated state supports the future prosperity of Virginia, its citizens and its regions. An educated population and well-trained workforce increase economic competitiveness, improve the lives of individuals and support greater community engagement. The best-educated state means that Virginia supports higher education at all levels. This spectrum includes workforce credentials, such as industry certifications, state licensures, apprenticeships, and certificates, as well as traditional degrees.

That’s it. Without more data, we don’t know if becoming the best educated state will contribute to the state’s economic development or will steer resources into an unnecessary and expensive expansion of Virginia’s higher ed establishment.

There is abundant anecdotal evidence that there are widespread skills shortages in certain occupations. So, clearly, there is a need to ramp up education/training in specific areas. Many if not most of these skills can be delivered by community college-level certifications and associate degrees. Whether becoming the “best educated state in the country” will address those specific skills or churn out locally unemployable college graduates is an open question.

(This First ran in Bacon’s Rebellion on Dec. 12, 2016

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