Never read the comments, they say.
I’ve read the comments. Specifically the comments on a story that The Martinsville Bulletin published last week, a story so remarkable that it deserves a wider audience and comments so utterly disappointing that they deserve a public airing, in the hopes that sunshine truly is the best disinfectant.
First, the story: A Martinsville nonprofit, the Harvest Foundation, announced a $10.3 million grant to – get this – pay for the tuition and textbook of every student in Martinsville and Henry County who wants to attend Patrick & Henry Community College over the next 13 years.
Yes, read that again to let the enormousness of that project sink in: The foundation will pay for every student in Martinsville and Henry County to attend the local community college. The 13-year timeframe means that even a student just entering kindergarten this fall already has two years of community college paid for.
A few restrictions apply but they are quite minimal: Qualifying students must maintain a grade point average of 2.5, perform eight hours of community service a year, and file some paperwork. In the great scheme of things, this is nothing: For one day’s community service a year, you get free education. Patrick & Henry Community College President Greg Hodges called this the largest investment in the school’s history, but it’s really an investment in the whole Martinsville and Henry County community. It’s also hard to imagine a more important investment.
We live at a hinge point in history where the economy is changing and it’s clear that the economy of the future (which in some cases is the economy of now) is going to demand a higher level of education than the economy of the past. Unfortunately, there are lots of communities – Martinsville and Henry County among them – that have a workforce that’s not ready for this new economy of the 21st century.
A famous study by Georgetown University in 2014 predicted that by 2020 some 63% of jobs would require some education beyond high school. So how has that worked out? The Chronicle of Higher Education reported last year that the figure was actually now 70%. That was before the pandemic. The Washington Post reported earlier this year that the job picture is even more unforgiving. Of 916,000 jobs added to the economy in March, just 7,000 went to workers with only a high school diploma.
Whatever the numbers, one thing is clear: Someone who doesn’t have some kind of education beyond high school is really out of luck in the new economy. It doesn’t have to be a college degree – there are huge and growing demands for various trades, but they increasingly require some kind of credentialing through a community college. (My go-to example: One of the things that drew the Eldor auto parts plant to Botetourt County is the mechatronics program at Virginia Western Community College. Yes, even many so-called factory jobs today require a community college program.)
And this is where Martinsville and Henry County don’t fare very well. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly half the population in Martinsville age 25 and over have never gone past high school. In Henry County, the figure is slightly more than half. Flip that around and only 12.8% of the adult workforce in Henry County has a bachelor’s degree or higher; in Martinsville, 20.9%. By contrast, the figure in Falls Church is a state-high 78.1%. In Arlington, it’s 74.1%. And that’s one of many reasons why Amazon’s HQ2 went to Arlington and not, oh, say, Axton.
Maybe Martinsville has no desire to be gifted an Amazon, but the point is, to compete in this new economy, Martinsville and Henry County need a more educated workforce. And that’s exactly what The Harvest Foundation is trying to do here. At a time when it’s fashionable to talk about people as “human infrastructure,” the Harvest Foundation is making a bold move to invest in just that human infrastructure. The workforce in Martinsville and Henry County isn’t educated enough? Fine – we’ll pay for every student to go to community college. That ought to fix that! Next problem?
You’d like to think that in a perfect world, the leaders of the Harvest Foundation would be feted with a parade through downtown – uptown, as Martinsville prefers to call it. Statues would get raised. Sagas sung in their praise.
Of course, we don’t live in that perfect world. Instead, some of us live on social media, where this decision was greeted with derision. True, many people, perhaps even most people, rightly saw the Bulletin’s story about the free community college program and commented favorably. But there were some who said things like this:
“This is not free someone’s going to pay for it. It sure won’t be big business. They know how to get through loopholes in taxes. So hard working middle class will pay for it as well as every grandchild when they become working age. All people under the age of 45 will be saddled with all [this] ‘infrastructure’ plan. I’m sorry to tell you there is no grant.”
“No It’s Not Free Keep On Drinking The Democrats Koolaid.”
“Everyone’s Tax Money Will Pay For This. Ain’t Nothing Free About This Think About It.”
Did these people not read the story? Apparently not. There’s no tax money involved here at all. The Harvest Foundation was created in 2002 with the proceeds from the sale of Memorial Hospital of Martinsville and Henry County. (When a for-profit chain buys out a nonprofit, the proceeds must go to a community foundation. That’s why there’s the Alleghany Foundation in the Alleghany Highlands and the Danville Regional Foundation in Danville.) This really is as close to free money as you’re ever going to see.
Furthermore, even if this weren’t free, the concept of paying for a community college education is neither liberal nor conservative. People on both sides of the political spectrum have recognized this new economic reality – that just as we have traditionally provided a free K-12 education, maybe now we need to think in K-14 terms. In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam and a Democratic General Assembly have enacted some pieces of a “free community college program,” but so have Republicans in other states, most notably for us in deep red Tennessee. The College Post, a website that covers higher education, lists 19 states that have developed some kind of free community college system – eight are ones that Republicans have carried in recent presidential elections.
And when state governments fall short, we’re seeing others step in to provide a solution. Many community colleges in our part of Virginia already have scholarship programs that attempt to provide free tuition for qualifying students. Virginia Western has its Community College Access Program. Dabney S. Lancaster has Dabney’s Promise. New River Community College has its Access Community College Education program. Private philanthropy has helped fund some of these programs. In other places, local governments have provided some of the funding, a quiet example of local governments taking over what historically has been a state function. In the case of local governments in this part of Virginia, those would be generally conservative local governments. This isn’t a case of starry-eyed liberals promising “free stuff”; this is about cold-eyed conservatives who understand marketplace realities all too well (and also understand that they need to fix their own problems because Richmond probably won’t). This is as close to bipartisan agreement as you’re ever going to find these days. In Martinsville and Henry County, we see the biggest player in the nonprofit sector surveying all the options available to it and concluding that the best way to transform the region’s economy long-term is to make a dramatic bid to raise the educational level of the local workforce.
There’s also evidence that this particular program works. The Harvest Foundation initially funded the SEED fund in 2017 as a three-year pilot program. The Martinsville Bulletin reports: “Since the inception of the program, the first two cohorts of SEED students are completing college at a rate that is double the national average for community college students.” Double! Based on those results, other communities ought to be trying to figure out how they can emulate this program.
Some people, though, apparently can’t be bothered to read past the headline before the comment (one of many reasons not to read the comments). Henry County Enterprise columnist Ben R. Williams (and a member of our journalism advisory committee) took these commenters to task. He called the SEED fund “one of our community’s most remarkable achievements,” one that “advertises us to the rest of the state as a community that cares about education.”
Ben went on to say:
Over the years, I’ve largely become inured to hateful, ignorant comments on Facebook. The negative comments about the SEED Fund, however, really stuck in my craw. There is a sentiment that I have heard in Martinsville and Henry County again and again over the years, a feeling that we don’t deserve to have nice things. To many, every piece of generosity comes with strings attached, and every altruistic act has a sinister ulterior motive.
When you consider the economic devastation that Henry County faced a couple of decades ago, I can see how many people may have adopted a hard, cynical worldview to shield themselves from disappointment. I can understand it.
But man, I’m tired of it.
Ben knows his community a lot better than I do, but we’ve all seen this kind of mindless negativity in other ways, in other places. The Harvest Foundation has made a big, generational bet on the future of Martinsville and Henry County. It really should get a parade or a statue. Or at least more thanks than some of these commenters are willing to give.