Colleges Urged to Close Gap Between Degrees and Job Skills

By DAVE RESS Daily Press November 15, 2017

The warning was polite, but clear: the House Appropriations Committee is looking for Virginia’s state colleges and universities to do a better job offering courses that match what employers want. Tackling that will be a top priority for the budget writing committee in the 2018 session, Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, said Wednesday.

So will be finding money to kick-start dredging channels for the Port of Virginia, he said. Higher education spending was a key focus in the second day of the committee’s annual retreat in Portsmouth.

“There is a gap between what we have and what we need,” Jones said, after a briefing by committee staff. “We spend a lot of money in higher education … we’ve got to produce results at the end of the day.”

He said he’s concerned that colleges aren’t preparing students for the jobs that employers say they struggle to fill.

The percentage of Virginia college faculty in science, technology, engineering, math and health disciplines is about 5 percentage points below the national average of 37 percent, according to briefing material prepared for the committee.

Vice Chairman Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, said he also wants to be sure colleges can help tackle the looming shortage of teachers and health care workers.

“We’ve been having some frank discussions with the colleges for a while,” Landes said.

He said colleges need to play a prominent role in economic development — as he said some already have — and that the committee’s deliberations need to keep that role front and center.

The committee’s briefing said colleges spending proposals for the next two-year budget amounted to an additional $634 million. About 35 percent of that is for initiatives including research, workforce programs and online courses, 29 percent would go for salary increases, 25 percent for technology, operations and maintenance costs, new hires and costs associated with growth in enrollment and 11 percent for financial aid.

Most said their top priority was increasing salaries, although committee analyst Tony Maggio noted that the method colleges use to say their salaries are not competitive is 30 years old. A look at broader samples of comparable colleges show Virginia schools are generally close to national averages, he said. The College of William and Mary has run measurable above similar institutions for the past decade, with average faculty salary nearly $100,000 compared to a national average for similar schools of about $85,000, according to Maggio’s briefing material. He did not have figures for Christopher Newport University salaries.

On the port, Jones said deepening the channels to 55 feet and ensuring that deeper pathway is 1,400 feet wide is vital.

“We want to be the the first stop and the last stop” for the deeper vessels that now ply the world’s main trade routes, he said.

Generally, shipping lines try to limit port stops to only two or three at the most on the Atlantic, and port officials here are concerned that ports to the south are aiming to be either the first stop for inbound traffic or last for outbound, which could lead lines to decide they don’t need to bother with Virginia’s ports.

The port authority is asking Congress to fund dredging but Jones said he’d like the state to pay for preliminary design and engineering work.

That would get the project off to a fast start, he said.

“This is important for the whole state,” he added.

Ress can be reached by phone at 757-247-4535.