Hall Family Center for Business Science at Virginia Western Community College. Courtesy of Virginia Western Community College.

One thing is clear about Gov. Glenn Youngkin: He understands the importance of community colleges.

Many things about Youngkin might be clear, of course, but this is the one we’re going to deal with today.

Earlier this year he made noises about sacking the whole state community college board if his administration wasn’t allowed to be more involved in the hiring of the next community college chancellor. When the board’s eventual choice abruptly backed out before even starting the job, it was widely believed that perhaps that appointee hadn’t met with as much gubernatorial approval as he might have liked.

The governor’s interest is rooted in at least two metrics (and, as a former co-CEO of a private equity fund, he is a believer in metrics). The first is the number of jobs he sees going unfilled in the state, and his belief that community colleges can help fill many of those by getting more people into training programs. The second is a number he says he pays attention to every day: how more people are moving out of state than are moving in, which he attributes to a lack of jobs. If we have jobs going unfilled here, and people moving out of state for jobs there, then clearly somewhere in between we have some kind of mismatch – a mismatch that he believes can be solved partly through job training programs at the state’s community colleges. 

Youngkin has also floated another initiative that will involve community colleges: He wants every high school student to graduate with a credential so if they want to go into the workforce right away, they can. He says he’ll have more to say about that in December when he presents amendments to the state budget, but however this program is structured, it will require the involvement of community colleges, he told Cardinal News during a recent interview in Bristol.

All that wind-up brings me to this: Does Virginia need to rethink how it goes about funding community colleges?

In 2021, the General Assembly directed the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia to study the costs and funding needs of the state’s institutions of higher education. That study is now underway, and I’ve seen some of the numbers. Here are some of them:

How’ Virgina’s education funding compares. Source: State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.
  • Virginia funds higher education at a lower level than all but 12 other states. In terms of general fund appropriations per full-time equivalent student, the national average is $9,327 per student per year. The Virginia figure is $7,215. The only states lower, ranked in descending order: Delaware, Nevada, Indiana, West Virginia, Louisiana, Arizona, Rhode Island, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Colorado and, in last place, New Hampshire at $4,370. The highest state is Wyoming, at $29,680, although that figure might be distorted by the state’s small population; the next highest state is Illinois at $18,752.
Here’s how much revenue Virginia generates per student. Courtesy of State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.
  • While Virginia spends less per student than most states, it charges students more than most states. As we just saw above, Virginia ranks 38th in the country – and below the national average – for state funding on a per-student basis. However, it ranks 18th in the country – and above the national average – for revenue generated from each student. Virginia generates $8,866 per student; the national average is $6,723. The whole spectrum ranges from a high in Delaware ($16,517) to a low in Florida ($2,301). There are, of course, at least two ways to look at this. One is that Virginia is underfunding higher education relative to other states and has shifted a larger percentage of the bill to students. The other is that Virginia has figured out how to have a strong educational system without putting a heavy burden on taxpayers – it simply makes students pay more. You can decide which of those perspectives best suits your political tastes.

    Here’s what I do notice, though: There seems no political rhyme or reason to the national figures. The five states charging students the most are two Democratic states (Delaware and Vermont), one Republican state (Alabama) and two swing states (Michigan and Pennsylvania). Meanwhile the two states charging students the least are diametrically opposed politically – California and Florida. I’m pretty sure Gov. Gavin Newsom and Gov. Ron DeSantis don’t have much else in common, but they both govern states where students aren’t paying much tuition. My point: It’s not as if free-spending Democratic states are giving students a free ride and parsimonious Republican states are gouging them, which would be the stereotype you might expect. It’s an unpredictable mix on both ends. If you want to say Virginia underfunds higher education, you can’t really blame that on one political party – this is a system that has built up over time and under both parties.

    Here’s the figure, though, that really catches my eye:
State funding by school, from the general fund. Courtesy of State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.
  • On a per-student basis, Virginia funds the community college system far less than any of the state’s four-year colleges. The state’s average funding for four-year schools is $7,641 per student per year (which ranges from $5,833 at James Madison University to $14,792 at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise). The funding for state community college students is $4,324 per student. That gap between the $7,641 average for four-year schools and the $4,324 figure for community colleges seems one that we should pay attention to. The length of time a student spends at either school is irrelevant here; the point is to focus on the amount spent on them while they’re there. Kristen Westover, the president of Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap, points out that even these figures don’t fully capture the funding challenges community colleges face: “Given that a majority of Virginia’s community college students work and attend part-time, looking at funding on a per FTE model still doesn’t capture the true picture, as the headcount in most community colleges is much higher than the number of FTE generated.”
State funding by school from the non-general fund (usually for capital expenses). Courtesy of State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.
  • This is true for both general fund funding (such as for operations) and non-general funds (such as capital expenses). For fiscal year 2020, the most recent year used in the study, the University of Virginia got the most: $23,460 per student. The state average for all institutions was $11,590. The figure for community colleges was $5,363 per student. The only institution lower was the two-year Richard Bland College at $4,644.

    Here’s why the disparity between what’s spent on students at four-year universities and what’s spent on students at community colleges is so striking: Many community college programs are more expensive to operate than the ones at four-year schools, particularly the type of job-training credentials programs that Youngkin is so interested in. The go-to example: A welding class at a community college requires welding equipment that the school has to pay for; a Shakespeare class at a four-year school may require only a book the student has to buy. Not only that, the instructors for those job-training classes are harder – and more expensive – to find. Cardinal’s Megan Schnabel wrote earlier this year about the nation’s nursing shortage. We clearly need to train a new generation of nurses, but one of the problems is finding instructors, because they can make more money as nurses than they can as nursing instructors. It’s not just nursing instructors, either. Earlier this year I was at Mountain Gateway Community College in Clifton Forge (it had a different name then). While I was there, some students seeking commercial driver’s licenses were practicing driving big rigs in the back parking lot. President John Rainone mentioned that the school was doing a booming business in CDL classes but had a hard time finding instructors. I have a buddy who drives a truck. I texted him to see if he was interested. Nope, he said. He’d already had the same conversation with Virginia Western Community College in Roanoke but could make a lot more money driving a truck than teaching.

Keep in mind that Virginia’s community colleges serve two distinctly separate functions: Some students are there for academic programs with an eye toward transferring to a four-year school. Others are there purely for job-training programs, and those are the ones that tend to be more expensive. Furthermore, the state often isn’t paying for a lot of those. “Nearly all new programming MECC has implemented in the last 5 years has been completely supported by philanthropy and grant funding, not state support,” Westover tells me. “We would not have been able to meet the needs of our region had we relied upon state funding.”

Let’s repeat that last sentence of hers for emphasis: “We would not have been able to meet the needs of our region had we relied upon state funding.”

That’s quite a statement. So the state has a community college system but, at least in some places, isn’t funding it well enough to meet the community’s needs?

I asked Westover for examples and she rattled some off: “The Slemp Foundation has funded our health sciences simulation lab. We utilized a federal Title 3 grant to fund phlebotomy and pharmacy tech programs and to hire biology and nursing faculty to be able to grow our health science offerings. We utilized a federal Health Resources and Services Administration grant to start up a clinical research specialist program, Appalachian Regional Commission funding to build a power line worker and CDL program, and have unlocked numerous state-sourced grant opportunities through GO Virginia, the Department of Housing and Community Development, and the Tobacco Commission to fund programs in smart-farming, machining, and dental assisting, as well as coursework in culinary arts.”

That doesn’t seem unusual. Mountain Gateway recently announced it will open a new workforce training center in Buena Vista to serve the eastern part of its territory. The state’s not paying for that – a $3 million federal grant is. The Virginia Western career center is the Hall Associates Career Center because company founder Ed Hall donated $1.1 million to make it happen. The Innovative Advanced Manufacturing Center at Wytheville Community College began with a grant from the Tobacco Commission. A recent annual report from the Tobacco Commission lists lots of other community college programs it’s been involved in helping fund: expanding cybersecurity at Danville Community College, renovating the manufacturing and engineering complex at Patrick & Henry Community College, expanding the Center for Information Technology Excellence lab at Southside Community College, plus helping fund a diagnostic medical sonography program at Southwest Virginia Community College and a simulated hospital lab at Wytheville Community College. None of those are things taxpayers are paying for (the Tobacco Commission money comes from the master settlement with tobacco companies in the 1990s, and the interest that’s been generated since).

Now, maybe that’s a great deal for the state: If somebody else will pay for these things, that saves the state money. Still, that disparity between what the state spends on community college students and what it spends on four-year students is noteworthy in another way. It’s unusual. The Hechinger Report, which covers education, says that nationally, states spend more on community college students than four-year students: “Public two-year community colleges achieved a new budgetary milestone in fiscal year 2021 as they reaped 6 percent more money per student from state and local governments than public four-year institutions did for their regular operating expenses: $9,347 versus $8,859 for each student. That’s a reversal from 2019 when two-year students received 5 percent less than four-year students.” Hechinger’s average for four-year students comes from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. It is different from, and lower than, the one the Virginia study cites; I can’t explain why, other than Hechinger is using a different year. Let’s not get hung up on that; let’s look at things directionally: Nationally, states are spending more per pupil on community colleges than four-year schools. Virginia is not.

Hechinger attributes part of the upswing in spending on community colleges on workforce training programs, which have become more vital due to the so-called “worker shortage” – which, as  I pointed out in earlier column, is here to stay for demographic reasons. Will Virginia join suit?

This all becomes even more important now that Youngkin has said he wants every high school student to graduate with either a credential or associate’s degree – which would mean a massive expansion of dual enrollment programs through community colleges. This is a pretty radical idea, the implications of which haven’t been fully explored. Youngkin is focused on getting workers trained and getting them into the workforce more quickly: If every high school student had a credential when they graduated, they could, in theory, start work in their field right away. If they had the option of an associate’s degree instead, then those going onto a four-year school might not need all four years to get a bachelor’s degree. That would also shorten the lag time between graduating high school and entering the workforce. Shortening that four-year college experience might be a very good thing for tuition-paying parents and students; it likely would not be for the finances of four-year schools. How many students are able to handle those kinds of workloads in high school? If they’re taking those classes, what other classes aren’t they taking? Would students have to pay for dual enrollment classes as some do now or would the state? Let’s set all those questions aside for another day. Few programs blossom full-grown like Minerva from the head of Zeus.

Instead, let’s just look at what would be required simply to scale up the dual enrollment program from what it is now to, well, anything bigger. Actually, we don’t need to because Youngkin himself addressed this during his recent interview with Cardinal News: “I believe we have the capacity to expand that [dual enrollment] extensively; there’s no reason why it couldn’t be incorporated in our graduation requirements,” he said. “I have to say it’s going to be a huge lift. It’s going to require expansion at the community college level. We don’t have enough instructors. We need to engage business interests in the 30, 40, 50 credentials that are the ones they want. That’s what we want people to focus on, not credentials that don’t translate into a job. But there’s no reason that every high school student in Virginia couldn’t graduate with a credential. You’re going to hear more about this in December as we frame this out but I’ve already started to warn everyone this is coming.”

If Youngkin understands that more instructors would be required – and he just said he did – then that makes me wonder what else he understands. How much more funding would community colleges need? And where would it come from? If Youngkin is serious about his dual enrollment proposal (or workforce training for adults, for that matter), then he is going to have to invest much more deeply in the state’s community colleges than his predecessors ever have. Will he? Can he? “This is a big moment for Virginia to chart a new path,” he said. Those are grand words. If he means what he says, they will also be expensive ones because there’s a lot of ground to make up.

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.