Improved Education Is The Ticket To Rural Virginia’s Future Prosperity

Published 2:25 pm Thursday, June 18, 2015

As a native of rural Patrick County, I can tell you that though my feet have taken me to plenty of places across the country and around the world, my heart has never left rural Virginia.

During my years as a legislator, attorney general and governor, and more recently as an international trade and aviation lawyer, and as a director of a public policy center at the University of Virginia, I have witnessed how trade, technology and globalization can affect our lives, our economy and our country. Increasingly, education is the engine that drives the American economy. Education is the “coin of the realm,” and it will determine the quality of our lives and our economic future.

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So, the challenge for us — our country, our commonwealth and especially our rural areas — is how to respond. Cheap wages, low taxes and physical labor no longer guarantee economic growth and development. If so, Bangladesh would be an economic giant, and rural areas everywhere would be thriving.

So, let me put it simply: A rural area’s inability or indifference to improving its educational level will ensure its own demise.

Education is no longer for just the children. Learning must be lifelong for all of us. Education must become part of every public discussion and decision. It must permeate the consciousness of the citizenry at large. It must be seen for what it is — the key to our future.

In rural Virginia, it will take a while to prepare for that future, unfortunately. Here’s why:

Too many rural counties have too many people who lack a high school education. That was once understandable, even acceptable, especially in the rural economies of agriculture or mining, or timber, tobacco and textiles, and even fishing, but not today.

Too many rural communities do not send enough of their high school graduates to college or create coherent and comprehensible workforce programs for those who choose not to go to college but want to pursue a vocation with marketable skills.

These things are important. They make a difference in getting the attention of major employers looking for rural areas and small towns in which to locate a business. They make a difference in determining the future viability of many of our charming and historic towns and villages scattered across our countryside.

Our prosperity requires a sweeping change in the way education is viewed, lifelong in scope for all of us, even though that requires politically difficult decisions and requires significant financial investments often beyond the comfort levels of those in public life.

That is why the Virginia Foundation for Community College Education is working with — and supporting the efforts of — Virginia’s Community Colleges to improve the high school education rates in rural areas and to increase the number of people attaining a community college’s associate’s degree or a postsecondary credential. For far too long, rural Virginia’s educational numbers have been moving in the wrong direction.

There is an arc that begins on and sweeps down Virginia’s Eastern Shore, across Southern and Southwest Virginia, and up the mountain range towards Winchester. It is a stylized horseshoe area that comprises 75 percent of our geography and contains more than 2 million people. If it were a separate state, it would rank 50th in the nation in educational attainment, tied for dead last with Mississippi and West Virginia.

That may surprise some people. It should be cause for alarm, a call to action, especially since the rest of Virginia would rank number two in the country.

There is a growing number of us who are committed to this foundation, our community colleges and our shared Rural Virginia Horseshoe Initiative. It is a 10-year plan with two goals: Cut in half the number of Virginians without a high school education, and double the number of Virginians with a postsecondary credential. Straightforward and simple to grasp, don’t you think?

So, why not do something?

Virginia’s community colleges are uniquely poised and capable to confront this challenge in a way no other organization can. Fourteen of Virginia’s 23 community colleges are located within the footprint of the Rural Horseshoe. Seven of those 14 now are engaged in the first wave of this program, the pilot project. The rest will follow soon behind.

The strategies engaged to pursue our goals have a history of success. One of the keys includes full-time career coaches, community college employees who work inside high schools to help students and their parents create personal career and college plans and who will help market local GED or adult education programs to those who have not finished their high school work.

So, we need you to join us and help Virginia’s community colleges and the Virginia Foundation for Community College Education meet their 10 year goals.

Already, individuals and companies far and wide are stepping forward to support the financial challenges of implementing this plan, including the Dominion Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Dominion Resources; Valley Proteins Inc.; the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission; Newport News Shipbuilding; and others who recently donated significant dollars to the program. We need more for this important work of ensuring that Virginia lives up to the promise implied in the name commonwealth!

Gerald Baliles was the 65th governor of Virginia. He is chairman of the Virginia Foundation for Community Colleges Education, which is leading the Rural Virginia Horseshoe Initiative. He can be reached at