Where Will 30,000 More Tech Degrees Come From?
There are many moving parts to the Amazon, Inc., deal to invest $2.5 billion and hire 25,000 employees in Northern Virginia. In one of the most important deliverables, the Commonwealth has committed to increase the number of bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science and related fields by 25,000 to 35,000 over and above the already-ambitious baseline forecast over the next two decades.
Peter Blake, executive director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), says the goal is achievable but it won’t be easy. The number of students graduating from Virginia high schools is not forecast to increase substantially in the near future. If the baseline student population isn’t increasing, where will the IT degree seekers come from?
He sees four places to find the students to earn those degrees.
- More college-ready high school graduates. On average about 72% of Virginia high school graduates continue their education at college-level institutions. One way to increase the number of tech-degree seekers is to boost the percentage of high school graduates who pursue higher education.
- Improved college retention. Only 70% of the students who enter college manage to earn a degree within six years. Virginia can bolster the talent pipeline by reducing the college dropout rate, thereby increasing the retention rate.
- Improved “recovery” of college dropouts. Tens of thousands of Virginians have earned college credits but failed to earn degrees or credentials. Potentially, the higher-ed system can coax some of these college dropouts back into school to complete their degrees.
- More out-of-state students. If all else fails, Virginia can increase admittance of out-of-state students into Virginia higher-ed institutions.
“We have to step up in each of those areas,” Blake says. “Business as usual won’t get us there.”
The deal makers negotiating the Amazon package anticipated some of these issues. The Governor’s website explains how it expects to build Virginia’s talent pipeline.
- Bachelor’s degrees. To expand the number of bachelor’s degrees, the Commonwealth will establish a performance-based tech talent investment fund, with General Assembly approval. This fund will enable higher education institutions across Virginia to receive startup funds for faculty recruitment, state capital investment (where required), and enrollment funding to expand the number of bachelor’s degrees the institutions confer annually in computer science and closely related fields (e.g., computer engineering).
- Master’s degrees. To expand the number of master’s degrees, the Commonwealth plans investments of up to $375 million for academic space and operational support over the next 20 years. These performance-based, master’s degree investments will be provided to George Mason University for its Arlington campus and Virginia Tech for a new campus expected to be located in Alexandria. Those institutions must match the state commitment dollar-for-dollar.
- K-12. Virginia will invest $25 million in the K-12 STEM and computer science experience for students and teachers over the next 20 years.
Blake offers no comment on whether those resources will be adequate. Legislators will have to decide whether they will be adequate. Here’s my concern: The General Assembly can set aside money to increase the institutional capacity to provide ~30,000 more advanced degrees, but that’s no guarantee that the so-called “talent pipeline” starting with K-12 schools can increase the supply of students with the aptitude and desire to earn those demanding technical degrees.
If Virginia can’t develop enough home-grown talent to fulfill the demand, Blake suggests, colleges and universities may have to consider recruiting out-of-state students more aggressively. In that case, legislators may have to re-consider the out-of-state enrollment caps it has placed on some institutions.
The good news, says Blake, is that SCHEV reports key metrics — number of degrees granted, college dropout rates, out-of-state students enrolled, and the like. Legislators will be able to see if Virginia stays on track to meet its 20-year targets, and they should have time to make any needed mid-course adjustments.