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An Interview: Mark Warner

  Mark Warner Interview
Mark Warner became governor of Virginia in January 2002. This summer he was chosen by his colleagues as chairman of the National Governors Association. Governor Warner also serves as Chairman of the Education Commission of the States, a national nonpartisan policy organization. The interview was conducted by Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Patrick M. Callan: Virginia is one of a handful of states that has made a significant financial investment in higher education. How did you come to make higher education a high priority in these very tight times for state budgets?

Mark Warner: In Virginia this new investment was absolutely critical. It was close to $270 million for our two-year and four-year public institutions, and our Tuition Assistance Grant program for students attending private colleges. This was essential because Virginia's nationally recognized reputation for having great public institutions of higher learning was in jeopardy. And we have been dealing with the same budget crisis that other states have been dealing with.

Colleges and universities traditionally are one of the areas where the legislatures and governors cut (funding), because they can at least make up a bit of the shortfall with tuition increases. But that can only go so far. In Virginia, I believe we were on the verge of losing some of the national stature that our universities have enjoyed. So, luckily, with the bipartisan tax reform, we were able to make a significant step in reinvesting in higher education. But that is only the first step.

PC: What do you see as the other steps? What comes next?

MW: The next step is to enter into a debate over the coming months and into our General Assembly session that starts in January about what should be the future of higher education in Virginia over the next decade. This debate is spurred by the fact that we have close to 60,000 additional students who want to attend our higher education institutions before the end of the decade, and we just don't have the space right now.

We have been increasing tuition costs. Our top-tier universities-University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and William and Mary-have asked for a dramatic restructuring of their relationship with the state. And they have proposed to become charter universities, which would give them more tuition flexibility and oversight flexibility in terms of how they operate their campuses, build their facilities, and compensate their faculty and staff.

While the proposal has a great deal of merit, if we are going to enter into this renegotiation, it needs to take into account how we are going to meet the Commonwealth's overall needs for higher education in terms of access, affordability, completion rates and participation. And that is what we hope to do over the coming months.

PC: How will Virginia address the need to accommodate 60,000 additional students in a decade's time?

MW: One piece which has been not only a focus here in Virginia, but hopefully will be a focus across the nation, is to redesign the American high school with a particular emphasis on the senior year. You increase the connectivity between secondary education and postsecondary. In Virginia we have recently signed an articulation agreement between every two-year and four-year, public and private university in the state. Sixty-three out of the 65 universities have signed this agreement which will establish a common set of courses that a high school student can take-whether it is through Advanced Placement or dual enrollment at a community college. Those courses will not only be accepted by all of these 63 universities, but will actually count towards the degree requirement.

It is our goal to make sure that every high school student in Virginia can earn up to a full semester's worth of fully transferable college degree credit during high school. In Virginia, that would save a student and his family about $5,000 at a public university, and substantially more at a private university, by decreasing the number of semesters needed to graduate from eight to seven. It would also make the transition between secondary and postsecondary education easier.

It not only saves money, it frees up additional seats or spaces at our four-year institutions, because this articulation agreement makes it easier to transfer from community college into four-year schools. And for certain first-generation college goers, if they can get some college credits under their belt in high school, it may increase their participation in higher education.

That is one area we are looking at.

The second has obviously got to be financial assistance. We have a goal of providing at least 50 percent of the financial needs of all of our students. Some universities, like the University of Virginia, have gone much further on their own to be able to try to help low- and moderate-income students, either with grants, or with a combination of grants and loans. I applaud that, but I also know that we must make sure that we are not only granting this student aid, but that we are maintaining the percentage of students with need who are getting into our colleges and universities. If we only accept a few students with need, then, you know, we can take care of all those needs. We need to make sure that we continue to broaden the access for low- and moderate-income students, and for minority students.

A third thing is to challenge our universities to not simply look at how many students enroll in college, but how many students in fact graduate, and how we can increase those numbers without lowering quality. I have challenged the Virginia system of higher education to move from granting 47,000 degrees, which they did last year, to 57,000 by the end of the decade. If we can grant another 10,000 degrees by the end of the decade and keep those people working in Virginia, the added earning power alone will make up for the necessary additional state investments that will need to be made in higher education.

Transition to college, affordability and access, and output in terms of degrees granted without diminishing the quality: These are all areas that we are aggressively addressing.

PC: You've said at Education Commission of the States and other national meetings that the "K-16" ideas represent more rhetoric than reality. What can be done to put some meat on these bones.

MW: Well, I am someone who came from the high-tech world, and more specifically the venture capital world, where perhaps we could be criticized for acting too quickly at times. But I find that the reverse is true in education. There has to be a happy medium here. I feel particular constraints in Virginia with the one-term governorship. I am very focused on putting forward initiatives that can actually show results during these four years.

So the notion of making sure that every high school in Virginia is offered an opportunity to provide a full semester's worth of college credit-not simply the isolated pilot programs, or the governor's schools or the well-performing schools-but making this available in every school in the course offerings. Equally important as the course offerings is making sure that these courses are accepted towards the degrees. And we have accomplished that in Virginia.

With regard to the challenge of moving from 47,000 to 57,000 degrees, the universities are coming back with plans for increasing those output numbers. And, in effect, this is a quid pro quo: We are fighting for additional money that is needed for higher education; they have got to show how they are going to increase their output.

Another area where we have seen some significant improvement, but have still got a long way to go, is research and development in our colleges and universities. Virginia has got a great system, but on a relative basis in terms of university-sponsored R&D, we are in the $600 million range. I have challenged our colleges and universities to get above $1 billion before the end of the decade. I think that is very doable.

Virginia does a little better when you look at the research done in our federal labs, but I think our colleges and universities can do more. To try to focus our colleges and universities, we brought in a series of national experts to do an outside peer review of the status of our research work. Where should we focus our research efforts? For instance, we don't need four different duplicative nanotechnology efforts going on in Virginia. With this outside review, hopefully our focus and emphasis on research will again show real discernable results.

Finally, coming back to our high school reform initiative, I think that is particularly significant not only because it makes the senior year of high school more meaningful, but because it really does offer a cost benefit, and a benefit in terms of the space available at our institutions.

When you look at some of the other reforms that took place in the mid to late '90s-particularly in the south with the HOPE Scholarship-type programs, great initiatives-many of them, especially those that were funded entirely by lottery proceeds, are coming up against a financial wall. This Early College Scholars program in many ways is a similar kind of approach. It is merit-based; it is offered to every student in Virginia; and it has a significant financial value at about $5,000. But because we can deliver this course work through AP or dual enrollment, it is significantly cheaper. In many ways, it actually saves money to the state as well. It may cost a little bit more for an AP exam or to have the state pick up the cost of a community college course. But that is still significantly less than the subsidy the state provides for every student at a four-year institution in Virginia.

PC: How long is it going to take to get these opportunities in place for every high school senior in Virginia?

MW: We had 6,500 students participate last year. There were about 78,000 seniors in our high schools, so we were close to ten percent. I would like to see that number more than double this year. And with the efforts we've made, I won't be satisfied unless we see that kind of return.

PC: You've stated that Virginia has had to go through a difficult exercise of tax restructuring to be able to pay for the investments in higher education and other state priorities. Do you expect that other states will have to take similar steps?

MW: Yes. As painful as it was in Virginia, we went through a kind of straight-forward debate with the people of the state. What do you expect from state government, and what are you willing to pay? And how do we make sure that the way we collect those revenues, taxes, is fair?

In our tax reform agenda, we didn't create a series of new programs. We simply asked how we can pay in a fairer way for what Virginians have come to expect in terms of law enforcement, K-12 education, higher education, and some level of Medicaid and healthcare reimbursement. A remarkable thing happened. We forged a broad-based bipartisan coalition that was made up, not only of education advocates and business advocates, but environmentalists, law enforcement supporters, healthcare workers. And a wide swath of Virginia's population turned out, in some cases in record numbers, to be supportive of this agenda.

I think it is going to happen in other states because most states created long-term structural imbalances during the boom years of the late '90s, surrounding the internet frenzy. That structural imbalance was caused by creating massive new government entitlement programs or by substantially cutting revenues.

In Virginia we took the revenue-cutting proposal. It doesn't take a fiscal expert to realize that when you get back to normal revenue growth, and you cut revenues more than ten percent, as we did in Virginia, even with the growing economy you are not going to be able to provide the same level of service. So, while certain states are grasping at (revenues from legalized) gambling, or hoping to patch together one more budget, ultimately I think most states are going to have to have this kind of debate about revenues and about what level of services their people expect.

PC: The message of Measuring Up 2004 is that college participation rates in the U.S. have been flat for a decade and that college completion rates have improved only slightly. How important is this? Is it mainly a federal issue, or a state issue?

MW: The wake-up call that the Measuring Up study sounded was that this is the first decade, I would imagine, in recent American history, where we didn't see an increase in college participation and completion. That is remarkable. And when we look at our competitors around the world, we see that they still made significant gains. Thirty years ago, in the aftermath of the G.I. Bill, our country was viewed as the land of educational opportunity. By comparison, the U.K. system was viewed as a more stultified tracking system: Unless you had the family connections, you weren't getting into the university.

That has changed. That has almost flipped, because here in the United States we now see our participation and completion rates flat, and also a declining percentage of minorities and low-income students getting access to higher education, which is vital to the American dream. As a first-generation college graduate, I wouldn't be sitting here today if there had not been programs and initiatives in place that made college both possible and affordable for me through grants and loans. And we are seeing, with the rising tuition costs, with state support for higher education being cut back in virtually every state, with increasing costs to attract quality faculty and to promote research at our universities, that we are going to need to make that investment. And I am not sure it is going to be possible for that investment to come from financially strapped states alone.

I think it is a national imperative. It is a truism, but the idea that you can build it anywhere and that knowledge-based jobs are going to go to where the knowledge-based workers are, is absolutely true. As governor, I take very seriously my job as chief economic development officer, and the first question people ask me is, how well educated is the workforce. They want to know where the colleges and community colleges are if they are moving to a community. And if we see our industrial competitors around the world surpassing us, we need more national focus.

I wish these issues were at a higher level in the presidential debate. We look at higher education, it seems to me, often times from the federal angle, from a federal perspective, only on the basis of particular programs-you know, what level of funding is one program or another going to receive. There has not been the kind of full-fledged federal discussion of what we want from higher education in our country, and I think that discussion is long overdue. And hopefully, the Measuring Up study will serve as the catalyst that policymakers, educators and, perhaps most importantly, the business leadership of America, will use to launch this national conversation.

Photo by Dennis Black, Black Star, for CrossTalk

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National CrossTalk Fall 2004



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