BY KATE CONNOLLY
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE
RICHMOND – The dream of the New College of Virginia is edging closer to reality now that a bill to support the program has passed two key General Assembly committees.
The bill was approved last week by the House Education Committee and Appropriations
Committee. If the bill passes the full House and Senate, the school would be based in the
Martinsville-Henry County area and allow students to finish a four-year degree after completing two years at a community college.
The initial financial support for New College came from a $50 million challenge grant from the Harvest Foundation, which urged the state to create a four-year baccalaureate college in Martinsville-Henry County area. A recent report by the State Council for Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) also offered support for a program in this region.
"It is an exciting venture and one that can make a difference in the lives of so many people in the Southside region if it becomes a reality," said Dr. Leanna Blevins, who has been working with the New College Planning Commission since 2004.
According the SCHEV report published last year at the request of the General Assembly,
66 percent of students graduate from high school in the Southside, compared with 78 percent of students statewide. The SCHEV studies surveyed Southside students and found a strong interest in attending a local college.
The SCHEV report defines the Southside as the cities of Martinsville, Danville and South Boston, as well as Henry, Pittsylvania, Franklin and Patrick Counties.
The purpose of the New College Institute is not just to increase educational opportunity,
"There is an economic development component as well," said Del. Robert Hurt, R-Chatham, the chief co-patron of the House bill.
The SCHEV report and Hurt both emphasized the need to boost the struggling Southside economy since the tobacco, textile and furniture industries have crumbled, leaving many local residents without jobs. This initiative would create jobs in the area and "diversify the region's economy by engaging the resources of other institutions of higher education," according to the text of the bill.
Hurt said if the bill were to pass, it would not create a four-year university.
"This is much more along the lines of a higher education center," he said. "It draws on existing institutions. It is about collaboration with existing institutions."
There is the potential for it to become an independent university or a branch campus of another public college someday, Blevins said.
"Initially, New College would offer the third and fourth years of a baccalaureate program," Blevins said.
Blevins said the bill does not include specific plans for how to decide what New College may become in the future.
In about 2012, Blevins said, the New College board would likely reevaluate if that model is still adequate, or if the school needs to provide a full four-year program. If that were the case, it would probably become a branch campus of another state school.