10/06/10: ODU offers a model for achievement

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

THERE IS a direct correlation between education and income. Recognizing this, Virginia and other states provide funding to their public colleges and universities. Virginia has a goal of providing 67 percent of what it believes is the cost of educating in-state students, with the remainder coming from the students.

In March, Gov. Bob McDonnell issued an executive order establishing the Governor’s Commission on Higher Education Reform, Innovation and Investment. In the order, he acknowledged the state’s support this decade has been cut nearly in half, resulting in the near-doubling of tuition.

The commission has three major objectives: increased degree attainment, financial aid and workforce training; implementation of innovation and cost containment; and regional strategies/partnerships for research and economic development.

The commission need look no further than my alma mater, Old Dominion University, for a case study in how to achieve these goals.

Approximately 88 percent of ODU’s fall 2009 enrollment is in-state students, a full 10 points better than the statewide average. Other public universities with similar enrollments have lower numbers of in-state students. George Mason University has approximately 82 percent in-state, while Virginia Commonwealth University has 86 percent. The University of Virginia, whose enrollment is almost identical to that of ODU, has just 62 percent in-state.

Since 2004, ODU has added more in-state students than any of the other 14 public universities and has added the third largest number of in-state students over the past decade. And despite the state cuts, it has had among the lowest increases in undergraduate tuition. From 2000 to 2009, ODU’s tuition increased 91 percent, while GMU and VCU went up 129 percent and 97 percent, respectively. U.Va. increased 138 percent during the same period.

One measure of access to higher education is the number of recipients of a Pell Grant, federal need-based financial aid. Twenty-four percent of ODU’s fall 2008 undergraduate enrollment qualified for Pell grants. At GMU, the number was 17.9 percent and at VCU it was 17.6 percent. At UVA it was just 6.5 percent.

ODU has agreements in place to accept transfer students from Virginia’s community colleges. Its TeleTechNet education network, in partnership with the community colleges, allows students to finish the last two years of college without being uprooted from their communities. Many of the degrees offered fall into the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines that the commission believes are critical for the future work force.

With the opening of its Business Gateway, ODU became a partner in economic development in the region. The goal is to provide businesses and non-profits a resource to help them solve problems and grow. The university also has a Veterans   Business Outreach Center, which offers entrepreneurial development services.

One of the issues that the governor’s commission is looking at is the model for funding. Here, too, the commission should look at ODU. Despite all that it has accomplished toward the commission’s goals, ODU has been shortchanged when compared to the other public colleges and universities in Virginia. On average, the state funded 93 percent of what it calculates as its 67 percent share of the cost of higher education for fiscal year 2010. But ODU only received 83 percent of what the state was supposed to contribute, the lowest of all Virginia institutions of higher learning.

ODU should be rewarded, not penalized, for serving more state residents than other schools, for embracing technology, for its relationships with community colleges and for being forward-looking   in its degree programs and economic development. That it isn’t is a failure of the funding formula to consider these things.

Investment in higher education is beneficial to us all. A study from 2009 reports that for every $1 Virginia spends on higher education, it gets back $1.39 in state tax revenue. And for every $1 spent, it boosts the state’s economy more than $13. That’s the kind of return on investment we’d all like to have.