The 2023-24 Growth4VA Campaign: “It’s Time to Invest in Talent”

Remarks of Kirk Cox,
President of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council,
to the Joint Meeting of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia and the Council of Presidents

James Madison University
Harrisonburg, Virginia
September 18, 2023

Thank you for that kind introduction.

Let me begin by thanking the leadership for having me here today:  Chair Ampy and Executive Director Blake of SCHEV; and Presidents Reveley and Ryan of the Council of Presidents.

I also want to thank President Sands and Chancellor Price-Henry for their ongoing leadership of the committee that coordinates with us on the Growth4VA program on behalf of the presidents.

Finally, thank you to our host, President Alger.  As an alumnus of this University, it’s a special privilege to be back on this wonderful campus in my new capacity.

Today marks the beginning of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council’s 2023-2024 Growth4VA advocacy campaign.  Our message is: “It’s Time to Invest in Virginia’s Talent.”

Before elaborating on that theme, let me put our work together in context.

VBHEC is the nation’s foremost state-level partnership of business and higher education leaders, including many of you.  It’s a partnership that has stood the test of time – more than 25 years.  And it’s a partnership that has had a tremendous, positive impact on Virginia’s higher education system, on Virginia’s economy, and, most important, on the job and career opportunities of thousands of young Virginians.

As you know, our business leaders believe passionately in the importance of higher education for Virginia’s economic future.  And over the next six months and beyond, Virginians – including our elected officials – will be hearing from them.

The “business voice” will be heard through public events and roundtables like the one here at JMU tomorrow morning, through published commentaries, through social and traditional media, and, of course, through personal calls and visits during the next legislative session.

This highly visible campaign will run through the current election season, then continue after the election as so many new legislators transition to Richmond, and run through the legislative session next year that will adopt a new biennial budget.

While the business leaders will be out front during this campaign, we wanted to launch this program and unveil some good news here among our higher education leaders, because this is a true partnership.

The business voice resonates with yours in making the case for higher ed’s importance to our economy, society, and democracy.  Together we turn a spotlight on the policies and investments needed to move Virginia forward.  But, every day, you and your colleagues on our campuses do the hard work of turning those policies and investments into personal growth, practical knowledge, and tangible opportunity for young Virginians.

So we are here today to begin our new campaign by expressing our profound thanks to you for the good work that you are doing.  As a lifelong educator myself, I know you’re not in it for the accolades or the appreciation; you’re in it for our young people.  But you have in fact earned the accolades – you’ve helped build and sustain the nation’s #1 higher education system – and as for appreciation, well, you deserve the heartfelt gratitude of every Virginian.

Thank you for your work and thank you for this partnership.

So on to our campaign theme:  It’s time to invest in Virginia’s talent.

No one invests in anything without expecting a return.  And today I want to share with you some new numbers we are releasing to the public:  numbers that show the enormous ROI on Virginians’ investment in higher education.

VBHEC this year sponsored a comprehensive economic impact study by the highly respected Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at UVA.  It’s the fourth time in the past 15 years that we have funded this kind of study, and the results are more compelling than ever.  Listen to this:

  • Virginia’s public colleges, universities, and community colleges have a combined economic footprint that contributes $52 billion annually to our Gross State Product.
  • The system accounts for more than 188,000 Virginia jobs.
  • And it returns approximately $3.8 billion in revenue to the state treasury.
  • In fact, the investment more than pays for itself. For every one dollar spent on our public higher education system, the result is more than 25 dollars of Virginia gross domestic product and nearly 2 dollars back to the state treasury.

There simply is no better investment Virginia can make.

The same is true of the ROI experienced by students.  Many studies document this, including several cited in a recent cover story by Virginia Business magazine.  As our Cooper Center report notes, “Returns to both bachelor’s degree and associate’s degree are close to 14 percent, which far exceeds the rate of return available from most private investments.”

This good news is no surprise to Virginians.

In a public opinion survey that we also are releasing today, our bipartisan team of national pollsters asked Virginia voters if they agree or disagree with this straightforward statement:  “Virginia’s universities, colleges, and community colleges are a valuable public asset of the Commonwealth of Virginia, are well run, and are a sound place to invest public dollars.”

A whopping 83 percent of Virginians – 90% of Democrats, and nearly 80% of Republicans – agreed with the statement.

Similar percentages in both parties said Virginians should feel proud of our higher education system and want their own children to attend one of our schools.

Perhaps most impressive of all, more than 90% in both parties say that making sure every Virginian can gain a certificate or degree that suits their aspirations and ability is not only important – it’s “the most important investment our state can make.”

Virginians also believe talent is what sets Virginia apart from our competitors.  The main reason we are in the top 2 states for business, according to CNBC, is that we are the top state for education.  And in our poll, more than 90% of Virginia voters said it’s important to invest so that we maintain that competitive advantage.

As you can imagine, I have looked at quite a few polls over nearly three decades of public service, and I can tell you this level of public support is extraordinary.  It’s all the more impressive when you consider the recent national polls showing erosion of support for higher education across the country.  The detailed data we’ve collected shows that’s just not true in Virginia!

So when it comes to investing in Virginia’s talent, we have documented both the compelling economic return and the strong public consensus.  Our business leaders will be delivering this message to our elected officials, many of whom will be coming to Richmond in January for the first time.

Let me close by saying a few words about how we should invest in Virginia’s talent.

VBHEC looks forward to working in partnership with SCHEV and the COP to advance a number of key initiatives, ranging from state funding of military survivors benefits and mental health services, to more operating support and financial aid to improve affordability.

Our greatest focus during the fall campaign, however, will be on internships and affordable talent pathways.

We have been working on this in partnership with you for several years, and a very solid foundation is in place.  Important startup investments and planning have occurred.  Now is the time for Virginia to build on this progress and make the decisive investments needed to provide at least one paid internship to every student who wants one and make Virginia the national leader in work-based learning and affordable talent pathways.

As Speaker, I sponsored just one bill:  the House bill to create the Innovative Internship Fund in 2019.  Since then, using those funds, SCHEV has done a marvelous job of working with the Virginia Chamber of Commerce to stand up the Virginia Talent and Opportunity Partnership, and now VBHEC is an official member of that partnership.

Together, through V-TOP, we’re working to expand internship opportunities with small businesses, provide financial assistance so all students can participate, market these opportunities, and bring students and employers together via online portals and on-campus internship centers.

Great progress is also being made on your campuses.  In my visits over the past year, I’ve seen the various ways your institutions are scaling up internship opportunities and becoming “best in class” in so many ways.  Once again we are seeing that the “secret sauce” of Virginia higher education is how you innovate on your own campuses and also learn from each other.

Finally, I can tell you that this effort resonates with leaders in both parties.  Together, with our business leadership we’ve met with the Governor and his team and received strong expressions of support.  We’ve also met with senior legislators in both parties.  They all see the value of internships and talent pathways, and not only the benefits for students and employers, but also as a core strategy for keeping talented young people in Virginia after graduation.

So, the stage is set:  We have a compelling business case, intense public support, and strong bipartisan backing.  As Governor Youngkin prepares to submit a two-year budget plan and 140 newly elected legislators prepare to act on it, we will have a unique opportunity to move this initiative forward in a major way.

The time is now!

There’s a lot more to say on this subject, and you’ll be hearing us say it throughout this Growth4VA campaign.  So let me conclude my remarks here and close with a new video that tells the story through the voices of the students, business leaders, and bipartisan elected leadership of the Commonwealth.  

Growth4VA is a campaign of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council