Address by Dr. William
B. Allen, Director
State Council of Higher Education for Virginia
To The Virginia Chamber of Commerce
October 29, 1998
Good afternoon. I'm delighted to have this opportunity to meet and talk with distinguished business leaders from all parts of Virginia. If I may draw conclusions about the level of talent and thoughtfulness of the Chamber's executive board from its member I know best - Anne Marie Whittemore - then I know that I am surrounded by some of Virginia's best and brightest. I am sorry that Anne Marie is not here today; nevertheless, I want to take advantage of this opportunity to recognize her outstanding service on the Council of Higher Education. Her work on the Council exemplifies the generous service contributions that so many Chamber of Commerce members make to their local communities and to the Commonwealth.
I'm especially glad, so soon after my visit last week, to return to a region of the Commonwealth where the business community is so ardent in its support of education. The strength of that support is particularly evident in the partnerships among business, civic, and educational leaders that are propelling the creation of the Roanoke Higher Education Center.
Partnerships between business and education are flourishing throughout Virginia, not just in the Roanoke Valley. I want to share a few thoughts with you today about what I see as an important understanding to cultivate within these partnerships. Our relationship will be strengthened, I think, by acknowledging that while our colleges and universities have a central role in developing the "knowledge workers" that business and industry need, work-force development is not the central role of higher education. To be sure, work-force development has a major place in the mission of our community colleges, and it is also a part of the mission of the four-year institutions. Our goals for undergraduate education, however, extend well beyond this narrow focus. With the distinction between training and education firmly in mind, we each have much to gain from these growing partnerships. Forthright, attentive dialog - followed by meaningful action - must be at their heart. I look forward to such dialog with you today and in the future.
Robert Frost once commented that, "The brain is a wonderful organ. It starts the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get to the office." Even though there are mornings when we are each painfully aware of the truth in these lines, we know that the knowledge-based economy of the 21st Century requires employees whose brains stay fired up on the job. There are few good jobs today where brawn will suffice. The workplace of today demands employees whose brains are filled with knowledge. We need resourceful thinkers with nimble, alert, creative minds. Lately, we've discovered an urgent shortage of brains with scientific and technical expertise to fuel the Commonwealth's technology-driven economic growth.
But let me be clear about something: usually there's no such thing as not enough skilled workers in the workforce; there's only pay too low to attract them. If Northern Virginia wanted more skilled workers, Northern Virginia would pay what it takes, and if it couldn't get them in Virginia it would bring them into Virginia from somewhere else. It's no accident Congress has expanded resort to H-1 visas.
Still, though, Virginia higher education intends to contribute the brainpower our economy needs and Virginia businesses and industries have rightly turned to them to do so. Technology-based businesses, in particular, have called upon the colleges and universities to step up the production of graduates with the skills-mix needed to fill vacancies in existing firms and to attract new companies to Virginia. John Kenneth Galbraith accurately predicted that, at the end of this century, universities would become what banks were at its beginning - the major suppliers of the nation's most needed source of capital.
Virginia's colleges and universities are working hard to expand this capital. Next month, SCHEV will issue a report on the progress of the public institutions on their strategic plans and ongoing restructuring initiatives. You will also see in that report example after example of innovative ways that the public institutions are tracking shifts in the mix of skills that employers seek, and cultivating closer relationships with business leaders in every region of Virginia. I'll mention just a few of these initiatives today. As the state agency charged with leading Virginia's overall plan for work-force development, the Virginia Community College System stands out in its efforts. In addition to setting up new work-force development centers, the VCCS has created partnerships with Cisco System, Oracle Corporation, and SEMATECH to offer targeted job-training programs. Virginia Commonwealth is collaborating with industry experts in developing the curriculum for its School of Engineering and in creating student internships. Virginia Tech estimates that the number of graduates from its Management Science program will increase from the 100 who earned degrees in 1996 to 175 at the end of this year. George Mason's innovative TOP HATS program reaches out to top-performing high school students and offers them exceptional support in return for choosing a major in a needed area of technological expertise. And the $2.6 million that the General Assembly appropriated to Old Dominion in scholarship funds will ensure growing numbers of graduates in such fields as computer science and engineering.
The enhanced relationships between business and education that are evident in these examples may be among the most valuable outcomes of the reports and studies of the past several years. We in the academy recognize more than ever the importance of two-way, mutually beneficial relationships with the corporate sector. We aim to be responsive to your concerns and hope that you are also responsive to ours.
Virginia's business leaders are already responding to the concerns of the higher education community with your vocal support for our fiscal needs. You have been among the strongest advocates for a significant public investment in all higher education, recognizing the potential for a high public return. While you have rightly asked the higher education community to scrutinize and control the cost of the investment, you have also acclaimed the economic value that accrues from it. Today, that cost is about $10,000 for each Virginia student enrolled in our public four-year colleges and universities.
Within the academy, there is a firm commitment to keep college affordable for Virginians -- to hold the line on cost increases, or even reduce costs where possible. I readily acknowledge that the time has come for higher education to make clear - real to business and to the public - exactly what it means to proclaim cost-savings in higher education. Above all, I accept the formulation that a "cost-saving" is effectively a simultaneous reduction in unit costs and an increase in productivity. Cost-saving is not cost shifting. But I urge you to recognize that only the leaders of higher education are in a position to articulate those cost-savings. Just as health care leaders are best positioned to identify cost savings and productivity increases in health care, and manufacturing leaders are best positioned to identify cost savings and productivity increases in manufacturing, so, too, higher education leaders are best positioned to identify the same efficiencies in higher education. And I know that the presidents and I, through our boards, are now ready to perform that service, for, no one else can do it for us.
Our concern, of course, is not only with the cost of college, but also with its value. There are many different ways to calculate the economic return on that investment. For example, someone who has earned a bachelor's degree will, on average, today earn about $18,000 more each year than someone whose formal education ended with a high school diploma.i But, the return on our investment in higher education cannot be measured only in dollars and cents.
I want to enlist your support in acclaiming another, deeper value that accrues to the Commonwealth from this investment. This deeper value is realized from the impact of college in expanding not just the brainpower of our students, but also their hearts and souls.
Our aim is not just to inform students, but to help form them. We have no trouble recognizing that young children are not fully developed. We readily accept that a central role of elementary and secondary education is to contribute to the overall growth and maturation of these students. We sometimes overlook, however, that the 18 to 24-year-old youths, who still constitute the majority of undergraduate enrollment at four-year colleges, are yet in their formative years.
The challenge of undergraduate education is to stimulate our students' growth in both intellect and character. It is not enough to fill their heads with knowledge and skills. By the time they graduate, our students should feel that their education has challenged every segment of their being. And the best way we know to offer students this challenge is through a robust, liberal education - one that exposes students, with appropriate depth, to a general education in literatures, mathematics, history, science, philosophy, and the arts.
The first-time freshmen who entered Virginia's private and public colleges this fall will have careers that extend well into the fourth decade of the 21st Century. They are likely to lead active, productive lives well beyond the year 2050. These young women and men - and their fellow-students across the nation - will not only constitute the work force; they will be the political and religious leaders, artists and scholars, citizens, and parents whose thoughts and actions will shape the next century. Their college education must do more than simply equip them with a set of vocational skills whose half-lives may be shorter than the duration of a politician's latest promises.
Those who would mold the college curriculum to fit current, pressing needs for specific technological skills would do well to remember how quickly these specific needs can change. Consider for example, these two predictions, which were not nearly so accurate as Galbraith's. In 1943, Thomas Watson foresaw a world market that would need no more than five computers. Forty years later, Bill Gates stated confidently that "640 K ought to be enough for anyone."
Education - as opposed to job training - should last a lifetime. It should carry graduates successfully through the whitewater rapids of technological and economic change. Further, education must prepare our youth not only for a life of work, but also for the work of life. I want to draw your attention to two aspects of student development that I fear may be short-changed if we focus exclusively on work-force development - namely, helping students to become responsible citizens and to create meaningful lives.
It has become old-fashioned to talk about the connection between education and democracy. It is surprising that this should be so even here in Virginia, where statesmen such as Washington, Jefferson, and Madison articulated that connection from the very founding of this nation. College catalogs and mission statements still speak of "preparing students for responsible citizenship" and "developing future leaders." Our public discourse about higher education, however, seldom touches on this vital, potential role. I intend to re-introduce this purpose of a college education into our public conversation about cost and benefits. I would particularly like to hear your thoughts about whether we any longer believe that the quality of our educational programs directly affects the quality of our deliberative democracy. If we do believe it, why do we so seldom talk about it?
Worse than old-fashioned, it may sound like sentimental twaddle to talk about the connection between education and giving meaning to one's life. Nonetheless, I also bring into our public conversation about higher education a stubborn insistence that this is where its greatest value lies. Surely the Commonwealth does not court economic development as an end in itself? We seek economic development for its potential in helping Virginians lead fulfilling, self-reliant, productive lives. I maintain that a liberal education can add more value to our lives than any amount of material goods or wealth. The value of liberal learning not only endures but increases throughout our lives.
Listen to what one college president says about the value of a liberal education:
A liberal education acquaints students with the cultural achievements of the past and prepares them for the exigencies of an unforeseeable future . . . it awakens them to the power of art to shape, question, and impose order on the human experience and human destiny, to express the hopes and despairs, the dreams and nightmares of the human condition. . .
[A] liberal education conveys to students a sense of joy in learning - joy in participating in the life of the mind; joy in achieving competence and mastery; joy in entering the adult world of obligations, intimacies and relationships; joy in engaging in the converse among our several generations.ii
Which of us would not choose an education like this for our children? In a moral society, all the young are our offspring. Is this not, then, the education we ought to make available to all of our offspring?
The truth is that when we get to the bottom line, we do not really need to choose between educating students for life and for work. A strong liberal education will equip students with the important skills they will need in the workplace. A liberal education will develop students skills in speaking, writing, thinking critically, and reasoning ethically, along with other skills that employers across many job sectors say are essential.
Why, then, do I raise these questions with you? Many of you, I am sure, have encountered first-hand the value of a liberal education and recognize its worth. I draw your attention to these aspects of higher learning because you do know their worth and because you are uniquely positioned to proclaim it.
We know from the UCLA national freshmen survey as well as from experience here in Virginia that students increasingly base their college decisions on what they believe employers want. You can help guide those choices through your recruitment efforts, as well as through public reports and newspaper coverage. Just think how successful one segment of the business community has been in highlighting the shortage of technology-savvy workers. You clearly can have a profound influence on public opinion. Virginia's lawmakers and policy advisors also look to our business leaders to help them calculate and direct the Commonwealth's investment in education. You can insist that the computation of the return on this investment measure more than just its contribution to work-force development. And, you can remind the academy of our wider mission and hold us accountable for its accomplishment.
As we seek to expand the capacity of Virginia's human capital, we want
to grow a full human being - heart, mind, body, and soul. The work of
the academy goes well beyond developing brainpower. We aim to "light
a candle of understanding" in the heart of each of our students.
iiFreedman, James O. Idealism and Liberal Education. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1996.