ICYMI: Build a bridge from schools to jobs

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On Sunday, the Richmond Times Dispatch published a column by Speaker Kirk Cox where he discussed the need for affordable education that leads to a good-paying job in a growing economy. The full column is below.

Kirk Cox column: Build a bridge from schools to jobs

I am proposing a new partnership for Virginia’s future:

  • A partnership with business, education, and government collaborating on our most important economic priorities, especially the
  • talent pipeline
  • A partnership to ensure
  • affordable access
  • for all Virginians to a great education, a great work-study experience, and a great job; and
  • A partnership based on
  • performance
  • , with funding tied to measurable results.

***

The talent pipeline: A new way forward:

Virginia needs a whole new way to tackle the issues of talent, innovation, and jobs.

The old way is best described as the “build it and they will come” approach.

We design and fund our K-12, higher education, early childhood, and workforce development programs mostly in silos. Educational leaders at these different levels are doing good work, but they rarely collaborate across the disciplines, let alone partner productively with business.

We are not effectively connecting the dots between what the talent development programs are teaching and what it takes to succeed in this fast-changing economy.

As a result, Virginia’s economic growth trails that of most other states. Businesses cannot find the qualified workers they need. And many young people educated in Virginia are leaving for better opportunities elsewhere. For four years now, we have suffered a net loss of talent to other states.

Instead of the “build it and they will come” state, we need to be:

  • The “build strong bridges from school to jobs” state;
  • The “prepare resilient graduates for lifelong success and service” state;
  • The “provide an affordable pathway for everyone in a growing economy” state.

To put it simply, Virginia needs to deliver an affordable education that leads to a good-paying job in a growing economy.

We will be that kind of state only if we forge a strong partnership among business, education, and government all across the commonwealth.

What would such a partnership mean in practice?

***

First, it would help us win the fierce competition for talent.

We need to convince talented young Virginians to stay and get their degree or certificate here. We also need to market our top-ranked higher education system to many more talented out-of-staters. And once we recruit, educate, and train these young people, we need to connect them to good jobs right here Virginia, so they stay.

One way we can do that is by dramatically increasing the work-study opportunities — internships, co-op programs, etc. — that are available with Virginia companies.

Currently, Virginia ranks 42nd in the nation in work-study opportunities for students.

Virginia colleges and employers should partner to design internship models that work for both, and then promote these win-win models so that large numbers of Virginia employers participate.

If we can create pathways from school to jobs, with a meaningful work experience along the way, then we can brand Virginia nationwide as the place to get a great education in a top-ranked higher education system and then land a great job in a dynamic innovation economy.

***

Second, this new partnership would better align education programs with employer needs and supply the talent required for robust economic growth.

Businesses would work with high schools and colleges to create industry-specific pathways and align curriculum so that graduates emerge job-ready.

Information about education and training programs, internships, and job openings would be made easily accessible online.

Workforce initiatives would be targeted strategically at the economic sectors that present Virginia’s best opportunities for growth.

And state workforce investments would be aligned with GO Virginia regional initiatives to ensure that critical talent needs are met in each region.

***

A third way this new partnership would transform Virginia is by cultivating our under-developed and underutilized talent.

We must reach beyond traditional college-bound student populations and provide practical avenues to degrees and credentials for returning veterans, adults with partial college credit, working adults retraining for new careers, and first-generation and underrepresented student populations.

For many of these people, online programs provide an educational lifeline that did not exist even a decade ago. We have taken steps to increase these opportunities, including creating the Online Virginia Network.

If we partner and innovate, our top-ranked higher education system can be tops in online learning, too.

***

Higher education partnership agreements:

We not only need wide-ranging partnerships with business; we also need stronger and more effective partnerships with our higher education institutions.

As speaker of the House of Delegates, I will always be one of higher education’s biggest advocates and most committed partners. But part of being a committed partner is being a candid partner. And the truth is, if our colleges and their leaders do not come to the table seriously on affordability and accountability, it will be impossible to maintain our progress.

Higher education in Virginia is at a pivotal moment. We have never needed our colleges and community colleges more than we do now, because they are the key to the talent pipeline that is vital for our future.

At the same time, the bond of trust between the people and our educational institutions — and between our colleges and elected officials — has never been more at risk.

I believe part of the solution lies in crafting partnership agreements with each school on priority initiatives related to talent, the economy, and student outcomes and affordability.

Our higher education system is strong because individual institutions have grown up entrepreneurially, developed their own strengths, and created their own niches in the marketplace. Each of our colleges is different and can contribute something distinctive to our economy.

Institutional partnership agreements should focus on high-impact economic initiatives and spell out (1) what the school is going to contribute, (2) what the state is going to invest, and (3) how identified business partners are going to contribute.

The agreements also should address key outcomes for students, especially affordability and pathways to employment.

In return for a financial commitment from the commonwealth, each school should make transparent commitments concerning the four-year net cost of attendance for in-state undergraduates, the internship and work-study opportunities that will be provided, and the maximum student loan debt levels that any Virginia student may incur.

Notice that I said each of our schools should make these commitments “in return for a financial commitment from the commonwealth.” We cannot expect tuition predictability and restraint at the campus level if we do not provide adequate, reliable funding at the state level — so we need to tackle both simultaneously. We also should consider setting aside funds to guard against tuition spikes during future economic downturns.

The solution to college affordability is not one-size-fits-all freezes or other unfunded mandates. Those are political slogans, not solutions.

Progress is needed on a range of cost-saving approaches, from more robust community college transfer programs and online options … to greater efficiency and collaboration among colleges … to more financial aid, TAG grants, and work-study options for students.

Most of all, we need committed partners working together to bring costs under control, make strategic investments, and ensure that all Virginians have affordable access to excellent education and employment opportunities.

***

Funding based on performance:

Finally, we should follow the example of the private sector by measuring and rewarding results.

The last major higher education reform in Virginia authorized performance funding and set up a six-year planning process to sync up state and institutional priorities. But a recent study showed that over half of our public universities are on track to spend more than proposed in their own six-year plans.

By taking this process a step further so that it culminates in institutional partnership agreements, we can align efforts on major priorities like the talent pipeline and affordable access and tie funding to measurable results.

Taken together, the steps I have outlined will help make our commonwealth a magnet for talent. Most important, they will open new pathways for Virginians to great jobs, rewarding careers, and lives of good citizenship and service right here at home.

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