Change the future in Virginia’s rural areas

Published 8:01 pm Friday, June 5, 2015

By Gerald Baliles

During my years as a legislator, attorney general and governor, and more recently as an international trade and aviation lawyer and director of a public policy center at the University of Virginia, I have witnessed how trade, technology and globalization can affect our lives and our economy.

Increasingly, education is the engine that drives the American economy, 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.

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

Learning must be life-long 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 as 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 lacking 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 to 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 towns and villages.

Our prosperity requires a sweeping change in the way education is viewed, lifelong in scope for all of us, even though that requires difficult decisions and significant financial investments.

That is why the Virginia Foundation for Community College Education is working with Virginia’s community colleges to improve high school education in rural areas and to increase the number of people attaining a community college’s associate 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 should be cause for alarm, a call to action, especially since the rest of Virginia would rank No. 2 in the country.

The Rural Virginia Horseshoe Initiative 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.

Fourteen of Virginia’s 23 community colleges are located within the footprint of the Rural Horseshoe. Seven of those 14 are now engaged in the first wave of this program, the pilot project. The rest will follow soon.

One of the key strategies 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 the local GED or adult education programs to those who have not finished their high school work.

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 the chair of the Virginia Foundation for Community Colleges Education, which is leading the Rural Virginia Horseshoe Initiative. He can be reached at