By Stefanie Jackson – What would it take for the Eastern Shore to get a four-year university and all the economic benefits that go with it?
That’s the question being asked by local Terry Malarkey and a group of like-minded individuals who have formed the nonprofit, the University of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Foundation.
At an April 25 lecture at Eastern Shore Community College, the foundation highlighted the need for a four-year university on the Shore using statistics comparing educational levels in urban and rural Virginia.
Former Gov. Gerald Baliles calls urban Virginia the “golden crescent,” including Northern Virginia (with cities near Washington, D.C., like Alexandria), Richmond, and Hampton Roads (with large cities like Norfolk). Beyond is the “rural horseshoe” that includes the Eastern Shore.
If the two regions were states, the golden crescent would rank number two in the country for educational attainment, but the rural horseshoe would be dead last, tied with West Virginia and Mississippi.
There are nearly twice as many high school dropouts in the rural horseshoe as elsewhere in Virginia.
About 19% of those rural Virginians don’t graduate from high school, compared to just 10% of the rest of the state.
Only 27% of those rural Virginians hold at least a two-year college degree, compared to 47% of the rest of the state.
According to Malarkey, the key to establishing a four-year university on the Eastern Shore is public support.
Virginia has 15 public universities and colleges.
The College of William and Mary is the only one that was established by royal charter as a colonial college, and it has three branch campus universities: Virginia Commonwealth, Old Dominion, and Christopher Newport.
Three Virginia public universities began as women’s colleges: Longwood, Radford, and James Madison. Two began as black colleges: Virginia State and its branch campus, Norfolk State. Two were military universities: Virginia Military Institute and Virginia Tech.
And then there was the university started by Thomas Jefferson: the University of Virginia.
According to Malarkey, Jefferson founded UVA because his alma mater, William and Mary, was “stifling the sciences.” Another reason behind UVA’s founding may have been that William and Mary originally did not admit women, and Jefferson’s only children who survived to adulthood were daughters Mary and Martha.
UVA eventually gained three branch campuses: the University of Mary Washington, George Mason University, and the UVA campus at Wise, Va.
UVA-Wise is the model for the University of the Eastern Shore of Virginia because of its rural location. Wise County encompasses about 400 square miles of Southwest Virginia, with a population of less than 40,000.
Accomack and Northampton counties combined encompass approximately 2,100 square miles, with a population of about 44,000.
UVA-Wise was founded as a two-year college in 1954 on 400 acres donated by Wise County, and two-thirds of the original students were Korean War veterans.
Malarkey hopes “Shore University” will do the same for the Eastern Shore as UVA-Wise did for the southwestern end of Virginia’s rural horseshoe.
As of 2015, UVA-Wise generated $84 million in annual revenue, 387 direct jobs, and 293 indirect jobs.
But will Accomack or Northampton County donate land like Wise County and other Virginia localities have done for public universities?
There are 200 acres in Melfa, near Eastern Shore Community College, that are owned by Accomack County and are doing nothing but growing trees, Malarkey said. He has discussed the property with Supervisor Robert Crockett and is confident that it could be obtained for the University of the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
And where will the students come from? “It sounds like ‘build it and they will come,’” said Sandra Beerends from the audience.
Some audience members suggested following the example of UVA-Wise by recruiting veterans. They recommended contacting the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Wounded Warrior Project to find Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who may wish to pursue a four-year college degree.
But others said veterans today are too old and uninterested in going back to school.
Still others noted the “unique learning experiences on the Shore” that can be found at the VIMS (Virginia Institute of Marine Science) and UVA research facilities in Wachapreague and Oyster, respectively, and the Chincoteague Bay Field Station and the NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) facilities in Wallops Island.
Malarkey agreed with Beerends’ suggestion to reach out to Accomack and Northampton school administrators about finding potential future Shore University students.
He also addressed concerns about building a four-year university when enrollment at the community college is dropping.
Eastern Shore Community College had 836 students last year, down from 929 the previous year. Enrollment peaked at 1,461 during the 2010-2011 school year, at the height of the Great Recession when job seekers were pursuing college degrees to stand out in a highly competitive job market, Malarkey noted.
He considers current enrollment as “normal.” The last time ESCC enrollment was approximately 830 students was in the late 1980s.
Malarkey added the Shore University project is intended to widen educational opportunities on the Shore, not undercut the community college.
He hopes to set the University of the Eastern Shore of Virginia apart by establishing it as a STEM-H school (science, technology, engineering, math, and health care), where students can prepare for careers at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility, for example.
As an electronic engineer, Malarkey favors the sciences over liberal arts. College graduates with STEM degrees make 20% more money than those with other degrees, he said. Students that want “to actually making a living” enter a STEM field, he quipped.
Neither does the region need another marine science university, he said, referring to VIMS and its presence on the Shore at its Wachapreague research laboratory.
One of the foundation’s next goals is to get someone from the Eastern Shore of Virginia on the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), which must approve establishing any new university in the commonwealth.
The council has 13 members, 12 of whom are appointed by the governor, and the foundation believes now is the time to get an Accomack or Northampton County citizen on the council while an Eastern Shore native is governor, Gov. Ralph Northam.
An educational background is not necessary to sit on the council. Only two members have had a career in education: one is a school superintendent and one was a college president. The remaining members have held top-level positions in business, finance, law, health care, and technology.