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Diversifying education to diversify the economy

Recent State-of-the-Region presentations that I attended in Norfolk and Virginia Beach offered valuable insight into what Hampton Roads needs to do to stay on target for economic growth.As you might expect, there is good news, bad news and some news worth watching.

Presentation of the data-driven analyses, led by my longtime friend and colleague James V. Koch of Old Dominion University, underscores a slow rebound from the Great Recession while warning of further losses in downsizing the military.

For example, checking China’s expansion in the Pacific Rim – a strategic goal of the Obama administration – could spell the loss of a Norfolk-based carrier group to San Diego or Hawaii. That may or may not happen. Overall, defense spending benefiting our region, however, is “tepid,” the report concludes.

Other job areas, such as in construction and real estate, took a hit during the past 10 years. All told, Hampton Roads “lost more than 38,000 jobs from our previous peak level of employment in July 2007,” the report notes. As of the middle of this year, we were still 1.68 percent below the pre-recession totals.

Other potential economic threats include competition for the Port of Virginia from facilities in New York, New Jersey and Savannah, Ga., a decline in container shipping and reduced demand for hotel rooms.

What’s the good news?

The report states that “health care and social assistance jobs continue to increase in number,” and there have been gains in “professional, scientific and technical services,” among other areas. Wages are up in some occupations because of “a change in the mix of jobs” toward higher-paying ones.

So if recent trends and the outlook for further growth are mixed, what are some areas of the economy worth watching?

Higher education remains a substantial economic engine, and a vital avenue of opportunity for Virginians. Says the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia: “Virginia faces a future in which higher education will play an increasingly important role. Virginians will need deeper and broader knowledge and skills to be engaged, productive participants in our evolving commonwealth and its economy.”

Through strong internship and career-preparation programs, Virginia’s private colleges and universities offer abundant opportunities for professional orientation in business, medicine, and other fields, points out the Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia. “More private college alumni report having had internships than graduates of any other type of institution,” says CICV. Research makes clear that educational attainment remains the single most important gateway to employment and advancement.

But as with other sectors of our Hampton Roads economy, we are wise to watch the trends and rethink conventional models.

If the Great Recession resulted in a slower rebound for many areas of our regional economy, so, too, did that period of economic downturn usher in new realities for higher education. Prospective students and their families sought – and still seek – clear and fast answers to the value question: what’s the return on tuition investment? Colleges and universities nationally have been too slow to answer these concerns.

Converging with the question of value is one of choice: what is the best way for me to attain my education?

Most colleges and universities in the commonwealth now offer, or will soon be offering, some form of online instruction. The reason? Cost and convenience are two big factors as the consumer and student continues to seek affordable, comfortable alternatives to the traditional two- and four-year formats.

If the 1990s and the first decade of the new century saw rapid expansion of branch campuses, storefront day and evening courses, and other satellites of traditional locations, the current decade has seen a proliferation of electronic instruction.

Also at work is a shift in the customary relationship between economic challenges and educational opportunities. Conventional thinking concludes that in hard times, education enrollment increases as an out-of-work or downsized workforce seeks to retool.

But our Hampton Roads economy has recovered sufficiently to make many education consumers more cost-conscious and less likely to take a seat in a classroom. That, combined with the value-for-tuition question, is beginning to be felt in the community-college sector. On many four-year campuses, too, the competition for 18-year-olds remains intense, increasing the pressure on colleges to market their special advantages.

We often hear that a diversified economy is a much healthier one. In higher education, a diversified delivery system – a mix of traditional and online instruction, flexible scheduling, special appeals to older and underserved populations, among other strategies – appears to be a wise course.

Low college and university enrollments translate into diminished tuition revenue and a sluggish economic engine. As with defense spending in Hampton Roads, we need to be prepared to see the givens of the past become the uncertainties of the present, and beyond.

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