Richmond Times-Dispatch: Virginia is lagging in university-level research. Investing in private colleges can change that.

Richmond Times-Dispatch: Virginia is lagging in university-level research. Investing in private colleges can change that.

By Irma Becerra and Christopher Peace

The Carnegie Commission’s pivotal move in 1973 to classify the diversity of higher education institutions was a testament to foresight, acknowledging the multifaceted roles these institutions serve in our nation’s educational and economic landscape. The upcoming 2025 revision of this framework, setting rigorous standards for “R1: Very High Research Spending and Doctorate Production,” challenges states to harness the full potential of their higher education ecosystems. A new classification will emphasize a commitment to fostering research and innovation, tagging institutions that annually reach $50 million in research spending and 70 research doctorates.

Virginia’s educational landscape is hampered by not having private universities classified as R1 or R2, designations indicating high levels of research activity. This situation places the responsibility for advanced research and the production of doctorates solely on its public universities, creating the need for a balanced approach that includes private research universities.

Private colleges and universities in Virginia, each with unique educational attributes, play vital roles in the state’s workforce development and talent creation. Representing these colleges and partnering with the business community through the Education & Workforce Executive Committee of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, the Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia (CICV) includes 27 private, nonprofit institutions crucial for the state’s educational and workforce needs.

These colleges provide a significant return on taxpayer investment in higher education by producing a third of Virginia’s degrees while benefiting from only about 3% of the state’s higher education general fund budget, specifically through the Tuition Assistance Grant (TAG). TAG, which currently stands at $5,000 per year for eligible Virginians, saves the Commonwealth money. If these same students attended a public university, it would cost the state twice as much per student in general fund subsidies.

A notable CICV member, Marymount University, located in northern Virginia, a tech and innovation hub, stands out as Virginia’s only Hispanic-Serving Institution and is renowned for its practical-focused values-based education, including its nursing and cybersecurity programs. Undoubtedly, Virginia can enhance its economy through job creation, talent development and encouraging entrepreneurship by supporting institutions like Marymount or other CICV schools. Research universities in this network attract excellent faculty and students and enrich the local cultural and intellectual life. Policymakers at the General Assembly could learn from states like Georgia and Texas, among others, which have focused on public investment and have strengthened the research capabilities of private higher education institutions.

Private institutions like Emory University, an R1, and Mercer University, an R2, operate differently in Georgia. Emory relies heavily on federal grants and research funds, while Mercer benefits from state programmatic support. A notable example is Mercer’s engineering program, established in response to a state need and now producing hundreds of engineers; many contribute significantly to local industries, including aeronautical engineering at a nearby military base.

The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) is a shining example of public-private partnership in higher education. Established in 2007 with an initial $3 billion investment and expanded to $6 billion in 2019, CPRIT represents Texas’ commitment to combating cancer through research and prevention. This initiative, the most significant state cancer research investment in U.S. history and the world’s second-largest cancer research and prevention program, showcases the profound impact of strategic investment in public and private entities on state-level health care and academic standing. CPRIT’s comprehensive goals include innovation in cancer research, attracting and expanding research capabilities at public and private institutions, and implementing the Texas Cancer Plan. While its efforts have helped the fight against cancer, CPRIT has also enhanced the whole higher education ecosystem.

Virginia’s current lack of a private research university creates an imbalance that limits academic diversity as well as economic and community growth. By nurturing private and public research, Virginia can successfully emulate these states’ models and foster collaborative and innovative educational settings. Virginia’s private institutions already play a significant role, granting one-third of all undergraduate degrees and nearly half of all nursing degrees in the state, so a partnership will only elevate the state’s academic standing and create a more inclusive, economically vibrant Commonwealth.

Investment in higher education research and innovation leads to economic growth, job creation and community development. Virginia’s opportunity to redefine its educational landscape, align it with the evolving needs of the 21st century and secure a prosperous future for its citizens is now.

Click here to read President Becerra and Christopher Peace’s op-ed on the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s website.