Virginia Tech has spent 18 months celebrating its 150 years of existence.

The time now has arrived to blow out the candles on the university’s Sesquicentennial celebration and start creating, implementing, and executing bold plans for the university’s next 150 years.

Virginia Tech President Tim Sands said as much at his annual State of the University address Wednesday afternoon at the Moss Arts Center. Sands spent the first portion of his address recognizing the efforts of the Sesquicentennial Steering Committee, the Council on Virginia Tech History, and many others for their work during the sesquicentennial festivities before unveiling his priorities for the university as it looks to the future.

“We were able to reflect on how far we’ve come as a university and to begin to consider the great opportunities that lie ahead,” Sands said.

In 2016, Sands — now in his eighth year as Virginia Tech’s president — published his “Beyond Boundaries: A 2047 vision” document that serves as a long-term vision for the university. In 2019, he and his staff released a complete version of a strategic plan that includes four priorities: advancing regional, national, and global impact; elevating the Ut Prosim difference; being a destination for talent; and ensuring institutional excellence.

Top priorities going forward

Looking to the future, Sands unveiled two emerging aspirations for the university: becoming a top-100 global research university and making Virginia Tech accessible and affordable for students whose families do not have the income or wealth to support their student without sacrifices that diminish the value of the Virginia Tech experience.

“Attaining top-100 status as a global research university is an indicator of excellence that attracts talent, and we are in a global competition for the world’s top faculty, student, and partner talent,” Sands said. “Most of our peer institutions appear in top-100 lists, 18 of our 25 peer institutions are in the top 100, and all of them compete with us for talent.

“The metrics that define top global universities include evidence of faculty scholarships, faculty awards, global partnerships, and competitive grant funding. Advancing in these areas not only helps us attract talent and compete with our peers, but it also enhances our impact on the communities we serve.”

Sands already has taken steps toward accessibility and affordability, announcing an initiative for Virginia students in October. Late last week, Sands announced the formation of a steering committee, a financial feasibility working group, and a student experience working group for that initiative.

While Virginia Tech’s graduation rates, mid-career salaries, and loan repayment rates are among the highest in the nation, tuition and fees at public institutions in Virginia are higher than national medians for similar institutions. The scholarships and grants that Virginia Tech provides to reduce the cost of attendance for students and families are lower than the university’s peers, especially for low- and middle-income students.

“While we have been successful in increasing access, with over 40 percent of our entering undergraduate class identifying as first generation, low-income, veteran, or underrepresented minority, we know that many students among these populations do not have the full experience of being a Hokie,” Sands said. “Some lack generational wealth, and that makes them and their families financially fragile. Many of these same students must work multiple part-time jobs that are not related to their desired careers to help close the gap, in the process sacrificing much of the Virginia Tech student experience.

“A small, unexpected expense is enough to make students interrupt their education or leave the university entirely. Some are not able to participate in paid internships or study abroad because of opportunity costs associated with relocating. They often have not established the networks that wealthier students take for granted. Some take on too much debt and are then limited in choices when they graduate.”

Sands continued, “As a land-grant university, we should be a positive force for upward economic and social mobility, not just an engine for propagating wealth and opportunity from generation to generation.”

Preliminary estimates of the additional financial aid needed ranges from $25 million to $45 million annually, he said. Students need additional support in the form of advising, mentoring, and engagement.

Also, Sands said Virginia Tech is working to improve student success after graduation by providing experiential learning opportunities. Last year, Virginia Tech conducted a study to evaluate the impact of student experiences such as paid internships and undergraduate research on outcomes after graduation.

The university evaluated students’ success in identifying their “first destination” within six months of graduation — a first destination could include, for example, employment, admission to graduate school, or military commissioning.

The results showed that students with co-ops are 140 percent more likely to report a first destination and students with paid internships are 110 percent more likely. Students who work part-time jobs, however, are 20 percent less likely to report a first destination.

Such numbers are leading the Virginia Council of Presidents — a group that Sands chairs — into action.

“The council has committed to making paid internships available for every student who wants one without increasing time-to-degree,” Sands said. “This not only supports individual students, but also addresses ongoing talent gaps in the commonwealth.”

Three people sit in chairs for a discussion
President Tim Sands talks with students Amanda Leckner - center - and O’Brian Martin during the State of the University. Photo by Lee Friesland for Virginia Tech

Additional updates

In addition to unveiling his priorities, Sands provided updates for upcoming facilities projects and for several academic areas.

In November, the Board of Visitors approved the Student Life Village Master Plan that identifies a potential path to increase residential capacity from 10,500 beds to 13,700. This could occur through a series of actions that include the construction of the Student Life Village, which would add 5,000 beds in stages as needed. The Town of Blacksburg endorsed this plan as well.

Virginia Tech has been keeping its undergraduate population at close to 30,000, but applications have been rising. As a result, Virginia Tech’s acceptance rate continues to drop — a trend that figures to continue unless the university grows.

“I would rather fulfill our role as a land-grant institution by growing to accommodate all prepared Virginia students who really want to attend Virginia Tech while preserving the quality of the student experience,” Sands said. “If we don’t, many of them will leave the commonwealth, and we’ll lose their talent and future contributions to other states.”

Expansion plans are also scheduled for Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine; and Sands discussed the importance of Innovation Campus, which is set to open its first building next year in Alexandria; the success of the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative, which is led by Virginia Tech and already has brought $38 million in new research grants and contracts to Virginia; and the continuing support of Virginia’s agricultural economy through partnerships with Cooperative Extension and the 11 Agricultural Research and Extension Centers.

“When I came here eight years ago, we made a commitment to pursue a 21st century land-grant mission for the commonwealth,” Sands said. “We resolved to remain true to our agricultural, mechanical, and military heritage while also exploring new frontiers in science, technology, health, the humanities, the arts, and the human impact of a diverse and inclusive education.

“Today, in 2023, we are fulfilling our commitment to the commonwealth, and we are on the path to becoming a top 100 global research university.”

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