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Speaker of the House of Delegates Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) believes the Commonwealth needs to re-brand the effort of bolstering innovation, job creation, and talent acquisition and production. Having served in the Virginia legislature for almost 30 years, Cox said the “build it and they will come” approach is antiquated and must be revitalized to ensure that the Old Dominion can be one of the best state economies in the U.S. throughout the 21st century.

“We design and fund our K-12, higher education, early childhood, and workforce development programs mostly in silos. Educational leaders at these different levels are doing good work, but they rarely collaborate across the disciplines, let alone partner productively with business,” Speaker Cox said in a recent column in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Due to the fact that leaders in Virginia are not effectively connecting talent development programs to a fast-changing economy, the Commonwealth has begun to take a few steps backwards in economic innovation.

Cox said, “Virginia’s economic growth trails that of most other states. Businesses cannot find the qualified workers they need. And many young people educated in Virginia are leaving for better opportunities elsewhere. For four years now, we have suffered a net loss of talent to other states.”

To rectify this unfortunate downturn, the Colonial Heights Republican says Virginia must be the “build strong bridges from school to jobs” state; the “prepare resilient graduates for lifelong success and service” state; the “provide an affordable pathway for everyone in a growing economy” state.

“To put it simply, Virginia needs to deliver an affordable education that leads to a good-paying job in a growing economy,” he posited.

The speaker says Virginia needs to win the competition for talent and convince young people to stay and get their degree or certificate in the Commonwealth, while marketing the state’s top-ranked higher education system to many more out-of-state college students. Cox added, “once we recruit, educate, and train these young people, we need to connect them to good jobs right here Virginia, so they stay.”

One of the ways to keep talented people is to advance work-study opportunities, including internships and co-op programs that can also help Virginia companies. This, however, is one of the areas the state has not done well in over the years. Currently, Virginia ranks eight from the bottom in the nation in work-study opportunities for students.

Creating a pathway from high school or college to an employer would allow Virginia to brand itself nationwide as the place receive a top-tier education and land a lucrative job in an innovative economy.

To accomplish this, Cox says the new partnership between institutions of higher education and employers would align their needs and supply the talent required for robust economic growth. Such a network of relationships would create industry-specific routes and align educational curriculum for graduates to enter the job market at the top of their field.

Speaker Cox iterated, “state workforce investments would be aligned with GO Virginia regional initiatives to ensure that critical talent needs are met in each region.”

The legislator’s third way to form new partnerships would be to improve Virginia’s underdeveloped and underutilized talent streams.

“We must reach beyond traditional college-bound student populations and provide practical avenues to degrees and credentials for returning veterans, adults with partial college credit, working adults retraining for new careers, and first-generation and underrepresented student populations,” Cox said.

Online educational programs provide a vital lifeline that has gained in popularity and access in just the last 10 years. “We have taken steps to increase these opportunities, including creating the Online Virginia Network,” he added.

According to Cox, colleges and universities are at a “pivotal moment,” while the “bond of trust” between the prospective students and educational institutions have “never been more at risk.” Nevertheless, Virginia’s “higher education system is strong because individual institutions have grown up entrepreneurially, developed their own strengths, and created their own niches in the marketplace.” Each individual college and university therefore is intrinsically different and can contribute something distinctive to the state’s economy.

The three things institutional partnership agreements should focus as stated by Speaker Cox are:

1. What the school is going to contribute.

2. What the state is going to invest.

3. How identified business partners are going to contribute.

“The solution to college affordability is not one-size-fits-all freezes or other unfunded mandates. Those are political slogans, not solutions,” Cox voiced.

For a clear financial commitment from the Virginia legislature, each school should make “transparent commitments concerning the four-year net cost of attendance for in-state undergraduates, the internship and work-study opportunities that will be provided, and the maximum student loan debt levels that any Virginia student may incur.”

Though, the speaker said that Virginians “cannot expect tuition predictability and restraint at the campus level if we do not provide adequate, reliable funding at the state level…we need to tackle both simultaneously.”

Building on his remarks delivered to Virginia business leaders at the annual meeting of the GO Virginia Foundation months ago, Cox explained, “Progress is needed on a range of cost-saving approaches, from more robust community college transfer programs and online options…to greater efficiency and collaboration among colleges…to more financial aid, TAG grants, and work-study options for students.”

Speaker Cox is advocating funding based on performance by following private sector examples of measuring and rewarding results.

“The last major higher education reform in Virginia authorized performance funding and set up a six-year planning process to sync up state and institutional priorities. But a recent study showed that over half of our public universities are on track to spend more than proposed in their own six-year plans,” he said.

By creating institutional partnership agreements, Virginia leaders can aid in aligning efforts on major priorities like the talent production and acquisition and affordable access, leading to funding measurable results. With the Commonwealth set to become a “magnet” for talent, new pathways will be created for Virginians to get great jobs, rewarding careers, and fulfill a life of good citizenship and service.

“As speaker of the House of Delegates,” Cox said, “I will always be one of higher education’s biggest advocates and most committed partners. But part of being a committed partner is being a candid partner. And the truth is, if our colleges and their leaders do not come to the table seriously on affordability and accountability, it will be impossible to maintain our progress.”