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Sen. Garrett’s Regional University Philosophy Also Argues For Increased State Pre-K—12 Funding

Why not, wonders our state senator, Tom Garrett, link every locality in Virginia to a regional university—such as Longwood—and offer that area’s very best and brightest high school graduates a free education there?

The question is an excellent one and if the answer includes full state funding of that “scholarship” then the answer is a resounding yes. Cash-strapped universities, themselves, should not have to underwrite the program were the state to institute the plan.

The 21st District Republican senator’s laudable goal is to diminish the brain drain that afflicts, in particular, rural communities across the commonwealth.

“We’re losing our valedictorians in that part of Virginia to the University of North Carolina,” the senator told local leaders during Prince Edward County’s annual legislative luncheon prior to the General Assembly’s 2015 sessions.

Our salutatorians, too.

Sen. Garrett’s proposal would see a handful of Virginia’s public institutions of higher learning designated as regional universities—he apparently excludes the University of Virginia, the College of William & Mary, and Virginia Tech, seeing them as state, not regional, universities.

The senator told me last week he is waiting for the right moment—which may yet be a few years away—to present the idea as legislation. The goal is one he will not give up.

Too many rural families and rural communities, the senator believes, see their best and brightest graduate from high school and move away from home, first to college and then on to their careers. “They grow up and move away because economic opportunity doesn’t exist at home for them to follow their dreams, really, a lot of times…How do you address that?” he said to local leaders.

As a talking point, Sen. Garrett proposes that the top five graduates, or the top five percent, in a public high school’s graduating class would get a free college education at their designated regional university. For our region, according to his plan, that institution of higher learning would be Longwood.

“Something like that, I think, could serve to help those universities serve us better, create a reason for our young people to stay home. And, hopefully, by keeping some of that intellectual capital home, create greater economic opportunity going forward. I think it’s money well invested.”

It would be.

There is no greater investment than in our young people. Which, while we’re on the subject, is why Sen. Garrett and the General Assembly should increase public school funding statewide and free our teachers to teach. Doing so would target 100 percent of our young people. And—because workforce development is the number one ingredient for economic, or community, development—our intellectual capital would be enhanced across the board.  That could dramatically catalyze opportunities that would, in fact, provide the new jobs needed to keep our next generation here in their home community.

The General Assembly should apply Sen. Garrett’s philosophy of “money well invested” to pre-K through 12th grade, and then, per his specific plan, allow the top percentage of those young people to attend their regional university free of charge, courtesy of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Even if the brain drain were to continue to some degree, our graduating classes from Prince Edward, Buckingham and Cumberland Counties would, in this paradigm, annually produce more and more young people of the very highest quality. This, perhaps more than anything else, would position us best to bring game-changing job opportunities to our communities.

And that, of course, is the critical point.

As good as Sen. Garrett’s plan is, his proposal, alone, is unlikely to attract the new businesses able to provide the kind of well-paying, life-fulfilling jobs our young people deserve, and need, to stop the drain and keep their brains at home.

Improving the quality of every graduate will give us the best chance to do that.

Without those kinds of jobs, I fear the senator’s plan would merely give the cream of the cream of our crop a free ride to Longwood and then, still with no career for them here, we’d continue seeing our future wave good-bye four years later.

—JKW—