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Editorial: Why Virginia Western’s fund-raising campaign matters

Sometimes it’s easy to see how the old economy dies and a new one arises: General Electric is shutting down its manufacturing operations in Salem while yet another building for the Virginia Tech Carilion Academic Health Center arises out of a former brownfields in Roanoke.

Other changes are less visible, but no less dramatic. Here’s another: Virginia Western Community College has launched a drive to raise $15 million for its educational foundation. There are lots of fund-raising campaigns in the world. What makes this one so different?

This is big-picture stuff. The economy is changing. Just as the agricultural age gave way to the industrial age, that industrial age is now giving way to what many call “the knowledge economy.” There will still be factories, just as there are still farms — but there will be fewer people working in them, and the workers who do will need more education than their predecessors. One of the things that drew the Eldor auto parts plant to Botetourt County was the mechatronics program at Virginia Western. Yes, even factory workers need a community college education — if not a two-year degree, at least some kind of industry-recognized credential. The big economic growth is actually coming in jobs that require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree. All that’s pretty basic to those who follow the economy, but bear repeating as many times as they can be. The economy each day demands workers with more skills, more education, which means communities that want to succeed need to get more of their students into college — be those four-year schools or two-year schools. State policy, though, has not kept up with economic realities: State support for higher education is going down, not up, relatively speaking. In 1976, Virginia paid 70 percent of the cost of a student’s highest education — with students footing the bill for 25 percent (and the rest would be covered by out-of-state students who had to pay higher rates). Over the years, the state has covered less and less of the cost. Today, Virginia college students must pay nearly half the cost of their education.

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