Editorial: Northam proposes new university for Southwest Virginia. Is he right? | Opinion

Political candidates work from a script. They rarely do improv.

If you want to see improv, go check out Roanoke’s comedy improv troupe, the Big Lick Conspiracy. When candidates do go off-script, it usually results in what we call a “gaffe,” all the more reason for politicians to stick to their well-rehearsed lines.

So when we find a candidate musing openly about an idea he has — but hasn’t fleshed out with policy details yet — well, that’s when our ears perk up. Is he about to say something interesting?

That’s the situation we found when we recently talked with Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor against former 5th District Congressman Tom Perriello.

Northam floated an idea that hasn’t made its way into any speech or policy platform yet but one that lit up our synapses: Does Southwest Virginia need a new university?

When pressed for specifics, he doesn’t have any yet. Critics might call this idea half-baked. It’s more like unbaked. It’s a concept — and one worth looking at, whether you support Northam for governor or not.

Northam’s thinking goes like this: Universities are economic engines. Southwest Virginia needs a new economy. Ergo . . .

What if we built a new university in Southwest Virginia, with renewable energy as one of its core areas of study? Or greatly expanded the University of Virginia’s College at Wise?

“It’s a great opportunity to have expertise in solar and wind and energy storage,” Northam says. What, he asks, if that new university could establish itself as a global leader in such technologies? “If you bring in talent, big talent, talent attracts other talent,” he says. That, he muses, might help at least part of Southwest Virginia transition from a slow-growth economy to high-growth one.

If that new college were in the coalfields, perhaps that would help the region more quickly transition from a collapsing coal industry to a new energy economy? We’ve already seen how UVa-Wise has helped position Wise County to attract technology jobs. What if UVa-Wise were much, much bigger?

Northam’s basic thoughts are, of course, absolutely correct. Universities are essentially the industrial parks of the knowledge economy. Could we really get another one for Southwest Virginia? If there were really one available, communities likely couldn’t raise their hands fast enough. Now for the niggling details: Is there really market demand for a new college in Virginia?

Let’s look at some numbers just so we can ground ourselves in some facts before we return to futuristic speculation.

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia — the state agency that attempts to coordinate higher education policy — projects only a slight increase in the number of college students in the state for the next few years. SCHEV says the number of first-time in-state students will rise by only 1,392 by 2021.

What about beyond that? For that, we have to turn to demographic projections from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia.

It’s pretty easy to look as far ahead as the 2030s and say how many 18-to-22-year-olds we’ll have then — because they’ve already been born. The Weldon Cooper Center demographers up that figure some, on the assumption that people will continue to move into Virginia — and bring their kids with them.

In 2015 — the most recent year for census data — there were 460,063 people in that age bracket in the state. By 2027, that figure will peak at 524,156. Then it starts to decline. Why? Because there were fewer children born during the recession years. That means Virginia will feel the after-shocks of the Great Recession even into the 2030s, when the number of 18-to-22 year-olds declines to 505,530 by 2034.

That means in 2027 we’ll have 64,093 more people in the traditional college-age cohort than we do now. Even with the recession baby bust, by 2034, we’ll have 45,467 more people in that age bracket. Not everyone goes to college, of course, but for baseline purposes, the picture seems pretty clear: We should probably expect a bigger market of college students than we have now. Where will they all go?

Some, of course, will go to Virginia Tech — which has plans to increase its enrollment by 5,000. There’s sound demographic data to support that. If Virginia leaders can look past the next election, and even past the next decade, it’s worth asking just what the demand for higher education will look like in the 2030s. Ralph Northam University — as we’ve dubbed it — may seem fanciful now, but come the 2030s, will we regard that as the obvious solution?

There’s another trend to take into account, too: The exponential growth in the number of international students. As “the developing world” develops, that has resulted in a huge number of college students in places that previously had relatively few. The number of college students around the world doubled between 2000 and 2014, and will continue to increase.

Colleges in many countries are overwhelmed by this new demand: A few years ago, the University of Mumbai in India received 37,000 applications for just 800 slots. In foreign countries, there’s also a certain cachet in receiving an education overseas, especially in North America.

This represents a market opportunity on many levels. Some colleges in the United States look to international students as a way to help pay the bills. Sweet Briar College, for instance, is specifically hoping for an influx of foreign students as a way to increase enrollment after that school’s near-death experience.

And we’re not just talking about individual colleges, either.

Canada has made it national policy to actively market itself as a destination for international students. It hopes many will stay and become Canadians, thus helping balance out an aging population. Southwest Virginia has the same demographic problem; perhaps we need the same solution?

That’s why it’s not unreasonable to ask — perhaps it’s even wise to ask — whether Northam is onto something here. He may or may not be Virginia’s next governor come next January, but come the 2030s, we might just look back on him as the person who laid out one way to transform our economy.