By Kris Landrum, Patrick Henry Community College
Special Correspondent

Former Governor Gerald BalilesThe Honorable Gerald Baliles, 65th governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia (1986-1990) and currently Director and CEO of the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, held the audience of several hundred VCCS presidents, vice presidents, and other senior administrators in rapt attention as he delivered the closing keynote for the 2012 Chancellor’s Planning Retreat.

His message, true to the theme of “Strive, Compete, Achieve,” was one that challenges community colleges, business and industry leaders, and legislative bodies to help the state meet the completion agenda by increasing numbers of degree-holding citizens in the rural areas of the Commonwealth.

The same sort of bold idea that created the Virginia Community College System in 1966 using a statewide sales tax is needed now to meet the challenges facing higher education, Baliles said. “Imagine trying to accomplish the same thing today.”  It wouldn’t happen:  “Not for transportation. Not for education.” And not for many other causes, he added.

“Community colleges are still in the path of the approaching storm.”

Efforts to meet the charge to increase the number of college graduates are diminished by significant challenges: increasing demand for services despite decreasing resources; an alarming reduction in the numbers of full-time faculty; a greater demand for access and success; and complacency in attitudes about the benefits of higher education.

A perfect storm

Even the increased support from the General Assembly and increased funding for FY 2013 can’t offset what Baliles called a “perfect storm, a derecho” for community colleges. “Community colleges are still in the path of the approaching storm.”

“Make no mistake,” Balilles said. “This requires a greater public understanding” and greater public support for the value of higher education.

This is where we are, he said:  We have a great concern for the future because we live in an uncertain world. More of us depend on fewer workers. There is lower job security while technology quickens our pace. State and national leaders don’t realize the importance of education in an uncertain world. Colleges and universities don’t recognize the need for change. We need to restate the case for higher education. We need to point out the connections between higher education and investment and return, economic growth, social progress, responsible citizens, and the future.

Global competition

“We need to persuade citizens that higher education is essential and that without it our nation is at risk. We need to stress the value (of education) in a time of change. . . The nations with the highest levels of education will fare the best…..the best protection is a well-educated citizenry.”

Baliles cited a report issued by the Miller Center that recommends increases to the numbers of students who complete in order that the United States can complete globally.  The report suggests a major initiative for a public policy with an accompanying policy for funding to achieve the purpose identified.

“Higher education is the glue the binds the fabric of our society,” Baliles said, noting that frustrations arise because higher education is slow to keep up. “We must find the will, resources, and capacity to change.”

Virginia’s Community Colleges are critical to this – especially in the rural areas, he said, where the loss of the “Three T’s” (timber, textiles, and tobacco) and mining has caused a tailspin with traumatic effects to jobs, personal income, and attitude.

Rural Horsehoe initiative

A possible solution is a bold idea based on a program piloted in Patrick County, an area known at the time for its standing at the low end of the educational rung in the Commonwealth. The Patrick County Educational Foundation was formed in 2001 to serve 19,000 citizens with a 10-year goal to elevate that standing to one of the top. It had a three-pronged approach – college access, GED attainment, and workforce training, with aspirations to become among the top five areas in sending citizens to college. That goal was met in five years, Baliles pointed out.

Last year (2011) the 10-year project ended and the Patrick County Educational Foundation joined with the Virginia Foundation for Community College Education to create a new initiative to serve Virginia’s rural area, which “resembles a stylized horseshoe” and is served by 14 community colleges.

Plans to establishe “Virginia’s Rural Horseshoe” are currently underway and include increasing the number of graduates or GED recipients, increasing the number of students who enroll in college and graduate, and increasing the amount and quality of workforce training opportunities – ultimately increasing the economic competitiveness for the “Horseshoe” region.

“We have to ask: how will we adapt to change?  Education is the answer, pure and simple . . . Community colleges are taking a bold and ambitious step to achieve in 10 years what might otherwise be a life sentence . . .This is one way that community colleges can continue to change the face and the future of Virginia, ” Baliles said.

Kris Landrum is public relations director at Patrick Henry Community College.