By Carol Vaughn —
A group advocating for a four-year university on the Eastern Shore of Virginia got a boost earlier this month when Gov. Ralph Northam heard a presentation about a business plan for the proposed university.
Six students in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Executive MBA program created the plan as a capstone project.
Terry Malarkey and Kristine Marcy, of the University of the Eastern Shore Foundation, attended the presentation in Richmond.
“The governor asked very probing questions” at a meeting which lasted well over an hour, Marcy said, adding, “There was a lot of energy there.”
“Here at VCU we recognize the economic impact of higher ed in a community and we are always open to improving the quality of life for Virginia residents by building new educational pathways,” said “Butch” M.K. Sarma, director of the Executive MBA program at the VCU School of Business, quoted in an article in the June 16 edition of VCU News.
Executive MBA teams at VCU have taken on strategic dilemma projects for the past 26 years as part of their program.
“Strategic dilemma projects have successfully taken on many high-profile challenges and we believed that this would be another really great project for our students,” Sarma said.
University of the Eastern Shore Foundation founder and president Terry Malarkey and others interested in the idea of founding a four-year higher education institution on the Shore created the nonprofit foundation in 2019.
The group’s website is www.ShoreU.org
Members began contacting state higher education officials and university administrators around Virginia for guidance. Among other contacts, they were put in touch with a VCU Business School administrator who offered assistance from the school’s executive MBA students.
“We were treated extremely well; no one turned us down,” said Marcy, the foundation board’s vice president and treasurer, speaking Friday, June 18, at a meeting held in Accomac to review the business plan.
The VCU team — Tanner Clements, Kate Lee, Nicole McMullin, William Nicoll, Jin-Li Richardson, and Seth Roby — put together an exhaustive plan.
Shore U board members spent an hour working with the team every Friday morning for three months, Malarkey said.
“Those students and their professor really put us through our paces. They really forced us to clean up our mission statement, articulate who our target audiences were, explain to them why we thought this would be a good idea,” Marcy said, adding, “And at some point, probably about halfway through this, the light went on. This was not solely about education; this was predominantly about economic development here on the Shore.”
The students presented the plan to VCU faculty April 23.
“Through our research, we highlighted the economic conditions on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and the need to stimulate the economy in that region,” McMullin said in the VCU News article, adding, “But we also learned about what makes the area unique. The Eastern Shore is the only place in Virginia where a student studying engineering could intern at NASA. And one of few places where a student interested in environmental sciences could start their day in the classroom and end it on a commercial fishing vessel. This combination of economic need and relationships to businesses unique to the area would allow the state to create a destination for higher education that would attract students to a one-of-a-kind program.”
The students presented the plan to Northam June 4.
“I enjoyed meeting these hardworking VCU students and hearing their proposal for Shore
University,” Northam was quoted as saying in the VCU News article. “As a native of the Eastern Shore and a firm supporter of public education, it was a pleasure to see the research, creativity, and attention to detail that went into this project. I admire the students’ dedication, and I thank them for all their hard work.”
The plan notes household income on the Shore is lower than in other parts of Virginia. Additionally, 14% of residents lack health insurance, 19% live in poverty, and there has been a 13% population decrease since 2000.
A four-year, degree-granting university could have a positive economic impact on the Shore, both through student spending and tuition and through resulting jobs, according to the plan.
“The Eastern Shore of Virginia possesses a combination of industries unlike anywhere else on the eastern seaboard. The key to unlocking an entire region lies in its development,” the presentation states.
The business model recommendation is to stimulate economic development by locating an extension of an existing accredited four-year college on the Shore, with upper-level courses done in partnership with local businesses, creating sustainable jobs, building infrastructure, and generating tax revenue.
In terms of economic impact, and by way of comparison, the study found Old Dominion University, with around 24,000 students, averages more than $48.3 million spent each year by the student body; the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, with around 1,900 students, averages around $3.8 million; Virginia Tech, with more than 36,000 students, averages almost $73 million; VCU, with around 29,000 students, averages almost $29 million; and Eastern Shore Community College, with 654 students, averages nearly $1.5 million.
The figures do not include tuition and living expenses.
The target market for Shore U would be threefold: Virginia community college students; first- and second-year students at any Virginia college or university; and any student wanting to enroll in STEM-B (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, and Business) programs.
Both the natural environment and the presence of NASA Wallops Flight Facility and other Wallops entities including the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport could be a draw for students from out of the area, according to the plan.
The team conducted two surveys in connection with creating the plan. Between 200 and 300 people, 80% of whom were from the Shore, responded to each.
Survey responses showed 69% think finding skilled employees is among the biggest challenges to economic growth on the Shore. Additionally, 53% said a larger customer base is needed and 50% said education and resources are among the biggest challenges to growth in the region.
The top response to a question about what would have the biggest economic impact on the Shore was “increasing the consumer base for businesses,” followed by “investment in new types of businesses,” which according to the findings would have above average impact; and “opportunities for education and professional development,” which would have average impact.
Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they or a family member would be interested in an undergraduate degree program on the Shore, while another 24% said they might be interested.
The team recommended the group hire an executive director and establish a working committee as next steps.
Additional recommendations include partnering with an accredited university; partnering with ESCC, Wallops, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation; designing curriculum; and marketing the program to ESCC second-year students.
Goals stated in the plan for years one through five include growing the student base to 150 by year five; hiring professors; beginning to shop for a permanent campus location; and starting to raise funds and seek grants to help with startup costs.
For years six through 10, the plan sets a goal of having 300 students enrolled by year 10; beginning campus construction; and starting to create an endowment.
In years 11 through 20, goals include expanding course offerings to medical programs; partnering with local hospitals; and continuing to focus on the community’s needs.
The budget for a year five break-even scenario would total $4 million, including $1.9 million from tuition; $1.6 million in state aid; and $500,000 from grants, according to the plan.
Initial funding of $9 million would be needed to provide five years of operating cash flow, according to the plan.
Malarkey said the idea of starting a branch campus of an existing university is not a new one for Virginia, noting eight of 15 Virginia four-year public colleges began as spinoffs.
“So this is not a new idea; it’s just we haven’t done it in a while,” he said.
Malarkey noted U.Va. Wise, starting as a branch of the University of Virginia, has achieved success in a rural region similar to the Eastern Shore in many ways.
“No university starts off with 10,000 students. They all seem to start off with 100 students and four professors,” Malarkey said.
ESCC President Jim Shaeffer, who attended the meeting, said nursing and teacher education are among top higher education needs on the Shore.
“When we think about attracting students here, it is going to have to be programs that they may not be able to get other places or the amenities that those programs can offer,” he said, noting virtually all ESCC students come from the Shore.