U.Va. Wise lends economic development support to town
On the town of Wise’s website, information about the University of Virginia’s College at Wise sits behind an appropriately labeled tab: “Our College.”
When U.Va. Wise was founded in 1954, it was called Clinch Valley College of the University of Virginia, and it was the commonwealth’s first public college west of Radford. More than a decade before the General Assembly voted Virginia’s community college system into existence, the legislature gave the college a $5,000 operating budget its first year, with the promise of another $5,000 in its second year if the college lasted that long.
Clinch Valley College began classes on a campus that had been a farm, with 109 students, most of whom were Korean War veterans. The college offered only two-year degrees at first. It awarded its first bachelor degrees in 1970, the year after its name changed to University of Virginia’s College at Wise.
This fall, U.Va. Wise will offer its first graduate degree, in teaching. The college expects to add a graduate nursing program in fall 2022.
Small town, big impact
“First and foremost,” says the college’s chancellor, Donna Henry, “U.Va. Wise is here to serve Southwest Virginia. Access and affordability are two of our biggest central components of our mission.”
More than half of the college’s 2,021 students are the first in their family to attend college. More than 80% get financial assistance. A third of them, Henry says, get no contribution from their families to help pay their college costs.
“They’re coming to us with real needs,” Henry says, “and with a family that can’t support them getting a higher education degree.”
Starting this fall, U.Va. Wise’s Within Reach initiative will allow in-state students from families making $40,000 or less to attend the college for free, paying no tuition or fees.
“It’s one of the best colleges to be able to go in and graduate with less debt than you would anywhere else,” says Wise Mayor Jeff Dotson. His son, Kevin, graduated from U.Va. Wise in 2018 and plans to start law school this fall.
Dotson has been on Town Council since 2012, just days after he retired from the town’s police force. Altogether, he’s served Wise for nearly 40 years, so he knows something about the town and the area that surrounds it.
“Down this way’s all coal country, just about, and that’s declined,” he says. “Nearly everyone in the region used to work at a mine or for a company that supported mines or somehow served mine workers. As those jobs went away, so did many of the people who filled them. “Our population has declined quite a bit [also],” he says.
Wise County has lost nearly 9% of its population since the 2010 census, according to U.Va.’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. According to Census Bureau estimates, nearly 10% of the 3,286 people living in Wise in 2010 had left town by 2018.
Little towns that depended on mining are suffering all through the coalfields, Dotson says, but “in Wise we seem to be doing better than most of them.”
Wise is certainly doing better than some. The nearby town of Appalachia, which lost nearly 11% of its population over the same period, has a median household income more than $22,000 less than Wise’s, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Coeburn, another Wise County town, lost more than 12% of its population and has a median household income more than $23,000 lower than Wise’s. Neighboring Dickenson County has lost more than 10% of its population since the last census and has an unemployment rate a point and a half higher than Wise County’s. The median income in Clinchco, a little town in the middle of Dickenson County, is more than $39,000 below Wise’s.
One big reason, Dotson says, is U.Va. Wise.
“It’s been tough on us, but we realize we’re fortunate to have the college here,” Dotson says. “It’s a big asset to us, I think, to know that we have it.”
In a town as small as Wise, anything that provides 300 jobs and 2,000 potential customers would be an asset. “The college itself has always been an economic engine for this region,” says Shannon Blevins, associate vice chancellor for economic development and strategic initiatives. That’s just the beginning of U.Va. Wise’s economic contributions, however.
Education is any college’s primary purpose, but Henry says, “The other part of our mission, which I think is really important, is service to the region. One of the areas that we help to serve the region is through our support of economic development.”
The college created its office of economic development in 2007, and Blevins was promoted to vice chancellor four years ago. The elevation, she says, shows how seriously U.Va. Wise takes its role in the region’s economy.
“That department’s really doing good. They’re doing lots of things to try to improve the region, which would improve their college, too … I think they’re doing great work,” Dotson says.
Blevins isn’t actively recruiting companies, Henry says, but “her role is really to partner with the economic developers in the region to ask, ‘How can the college help with what you’re doing?’”
While the economic development pros market the area, Blevins says, U.Va. Wise invites prospective employers onto campus, hosting presentations and making sure companies are familiar with the expertise and resources available through the college. The college also reassures companies that the community can fill their workforce requirements. That includes offering pre-employment training in cooperation with community colleges.
U.Va. Wise’s economic development office works with companies that are already in the region, offering training and programs on campus and at company sites, working with businesses such as global technology firm CGI Inc., which has a facility in the Russell County town of Lebanon. U.Va. Wise has helped manufacturing companies such as Bristol Metals, just across the state line in Tennessee, with training around soft skills and organization development skills. Bristol Metals was combining divisions, Blevins says, and “wanted to intentionally develop a certain culture.” U.Va. Wise helped the company do that. The college has traveled across seven states to support companies with a footprint in Southwest Virginia, Blevins says.
“We’re trying to connect the resources and assets of the college with what the region needs,” she says. When no one at U.Va. Wise has the expertise that companies in the region need, the school also acts as a gateway to experts at the University of Virginia.
Much of the time, Blevins says, the college works as a convener and facilitator, bringing stakeholders across the region together, sometimes connecting them to resources and people outside the region, to discuss issues such as health care, economic development and advanced manufacturing.
Sometimes the college does that in formal ways, such as with the Healthy Appalachia Institute, through which Blevins’ office brings together organizations as disparate as the Appalachian Regional Commission, The Health Wagon and the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service to promote better health throughout the region. The goal, according to the institute’s website, is “to transform Central Appalachia into a leading model for rural community health throughout the world.”
U.Va. Wise also works on economic development as GO Virginia’s Region 1 support organization, focusing on advanced manufacturing, agriculture, information and emerging technologies and energy and minerals. GO Virginia is a business-led economic development initiative that promotes private sector job growth by offering grants from the Virginia Growth and Opportunity Fund and local governments. Each of the nine GO Virginia regions has a support organization that, with the advice and consent of the regional council, provides fiduciary oversight and administrative services.
“In parallel to building an ecosystem to support small business across the region,” Blevins says, “we’re also developing an ecosystem to really create a culture of entrepreneurship on the college campus.”
The college offers a minor in entrepreneurship as well as spaces for student entrepreneurs to develop their own businesses in Wise, within walking distance of the campus. U.Va. Wise opened the coalfields’ first coworking space at its Oxbow Center in St. Paul, a town straddling the line separating Wise and Russell counties. Amenities include broadband service that may not be available at local entrepreneurs’ homes. Kevin McGrail, founder and CEO emeritus of Fairfax-based Peregrine Computer Consultants Corp., visited an Oxbow open house in November, Blevins says. By January, Peregrine had four U.Va. Wise students as interns.
Internships can be a problem for students at U.Va. Wise, since not all of them are paid and most of the college’s students can’t afford to go a summer without earning some money, no matter how useful the experience might be. “We’ve had students who had to forgo a really meaningful [unpaid] internship … to be able to go and work in retail or fast food,” Blevins explains.
That’s why the college developed Wise Works, a program that pays up to 50% of an intern’s wages. Northern Virginia IT firm Atomicorp took advantage of the program, Blevins says, offering internships to seven students. Four of those interns were hired as full-time employees. “Companies are finding this is a good place where they can find talent, and they’re not having to compete in just a wild kind of market in those more urban spaces,” Blevins says. “And they offer very attractive wages for our graduates.”
The college’s software engineering and computer science graduates have a 100% employment rate after graduation, Henry says. “Those students are snapped up,” she says, in part because an advisory group that includes people working in the field helps keep the program’s curriculum and skills current. “They help us make sure that we’re cranking out students with the skills they need,” she says.
But U.Va. Wise is doing more than keeping current. In addition to plans to add graduate programs, the college is beginning its latest strategic planning process, expanding its outreach — and discounted tuition — to potential students throughout Appalachia and it’s midway through its largest fundraising campaign ever, announcing last October that it aims to raise $100 million.
Meanwhile, the little town just off campus hangs U.Va. Wise banners from its lampposts, paints U.Va. Wise logos on its streets and hangs “Welcome Home” banners for students each fall.
“We try,” Dotson says, “to make it feel like when you come into Wise, you’re coming into a college town.”