Agee and Harker column: Amazon’s verdict: Higher education is Virginia’s top asset | THEIR OPINION

By Nancy Agee and Victoria Harker

Yes, Virginia, your chief competitive advantage and economic asset is your higher education system.

That was the resounding message delivered late last year by Amazon, which chose Virginia for a headquarters investment that will create at least 25,000 high-paying jobs and generate more than $3.2 billion in new tax revenue over the next 20 years.

Many other states offered the high-tech giant far more financial inducement. So how did the Old Dominion emerge the winner in this New Economy sweepstakes?

The difference was our state’s top-ranked higher education system and our leaders’ bipartisan commitment to invest in talent.

“[What made Virginia’s] proposal stand out,” according to Holly Sullivan, Amazon’s director of worldwide economic development, was the commonwealth’s tech talent pipeline, including its plan to invest $1.1 billion in tech-related higher education over the next two decades.

Virginia Tech and George Mason University will play key roles in educating graduate students near the new Amazon headquarters facilities. But the largest portion of the planned investment — approximately $700 million — will be a performance-based program to produce an additional 25,000 to 35,000 bachelors and undergraduate degrees across the commonwealth in computer science and related fields.

Every public college or university in the state will have an opportunity to participate in this initiative, which will supply tech-savvy talent to many Virginia employers in addition to Amazon.

Perhaps even more important than those future investments, however, are the higher education actions that Virginia’s leaders in government, business, and on college campuses have taken together in recent years.

A core strength of our higher education system in Virginia is our schools’ varied missions, distinctive brands, diverse student populations, and ability to innovate and attract business, research, and philanthropic partners to help fund their operations flexibly and effectively. This has enabled Virginia’s colleges and universities to have a major positive impact on our economy and produce top graduation rates despite per-student spending that is generally at or below — and often well below — that of their peer institutions in other states.

Bipartisan support for higher education in Virginia has ensured a series of reform-based investments since the turn of the century: restructuring legislation; capital funding for classrooms and labs; community college programs that award industry-recognized credentials; strategic investments to convert university research into new products and business startups; and the landmark “Top Jobs Act” of 2011 that committed the commonwealth to conferring tens of thousands of additional degrees and credentials in high-demand fields.

Last year, the commonwealth sent another strong positive signal to the technology sector by launching a new cybersecurity initiative and investing in added computer science degree production.

Our colleagues in the Virginia business community have been strong partners with higher education and political leaders, promoting these reforms and investments through the “Growth4VA” campaign of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council and other initiatives. We are pleased to be part of this important partnership, which continues to work for bipartisan measures that will enhance opportunity for all Virginians.

We hear a lot about what is wrong with our political system these days, so it is refreshing to see leaders working together to get good things done.

Voters like what they see. Recent polls show a high degree of confidence in Virginia’s colleges and universities. And more than two-thirds of Virginia voters support the commitments made to secure Amazon’s historic investment in the commonwealth. In economically challenged regions like Southside and Southwest, the support tops 90 percent.

Of course, the biggest beneficiaries of these forward-looking measures are not even old enough to vote yet. They are the young people and coming generations of Virginians who will be able to gain highly marketable college degrees and industry credentials and then find well-paying jobs without leaving the commonwealth.

This is no small matter. In recent years, Virginia has experienced a net out-migration of talent, as many college graduates — including up to a third of those in computer science and related fields — have left the commonwealth in search of better job opportunities elsewhere. This phenomenon splits families, keeps businesses from finding the qualified workers they need in order to grow, and hurts our economy.

The Amazon decision promises to reverse that negative trend and make Virginia a magnet for talent once again.

All this is good news and cause for celebration. But in today’s hyper-competitive environment, Virginia cannot afford to rest on its laurels. We need to invest strategically in college affordability, align higher education programs with state economic priorities through institutional partnership performance agreements, create a financial reserve to guard against future tuition spikes, and promote business-higher education partnerships on research, innovation, internships, and business process improvement.

Most of all, we must avoid the easy error of taking our top-ranked higher education system for granted.

Thanks in large measure to our colleges, universities, and community colleges and those who serve and support them, Virginia just won the biggest economic development prize in memory. It has demonstrated once again that higher education is where our investment of state tax dollars earns the highest return.

The future will indeed be bright for Virginians if we continue to strengthen the partnership between business, higher education, and our bipartisan state leadership that has placed our system of colleges, universities, and community colleges among the very best in our country and the world.

Nancy Howell Agee is president and CEO of Carilion Clinic and principal architect of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. She may be reached at

Victoria Harker is executive vice president and CFO of TEGNA Inc., and serves on the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. Contact her at

Both are board members of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council.

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