Sons of Strategy: A Look Ahead at Virginia Tech in 2045
As a distraction from the current pandemic, I thought it would be a fun exercise to zoom out for a change and take a 10,000-foot level view of Virginia Tech and ask a simple question... How is Tech positioned to grow over the next 25 years?
Not just as a football program or athletic department, but as a university.
Currently, Hokie Nation seems to be stuck in a debate about how to increase donations for the Hokie Club, how much should be invested into new athletic facilities, how to improve recruiting, and how other rival schools are performing better at these initiatives than Virginia Tech.
So the reason I’m more curious about the university’s growth is simple, in the long run, enrolling and graduating more future Hokies into higher income industries ultimately means increasing the capacity of the Hokie Club by having a larger and more powerful donor base.
Makes sense right? If Virginia Tech and its fans want to compete with the blue blood programs, why not try and grow the entire school? This logic led me down a bit of a rabbit hole, but I'll admit, the more I looked for answers, the more questions I had.
- How has Virginia Tech historically grown?
- Does Virginia Tech even want to grow?
- If VT wants to grow, then by how much?
- And finally, what is the strategy that will help Virginia Tech grow over the next 25 years?
The good news is, in my attempt to answer all of these questions, I found some very interesting results that should excite Hokie Nation.
With that in mind, let's get started!
How has Virginia Tech historically grown?
Virginia Tech was founded as a land-grant university, meaning the Commonwealth of Virginia received federal land to establish a publicly funded agricultural and technical institution. In other words, Virginia Tech’s land-grant mandate was to produce more students with practical research experience who could immediately work in the agricultural and engineering industries.
As a mission-driven university, Virginia Tech historically observed an almost dogmatic-like commitment to their land-grant mandate, along with requiring some form of participation in the Corps of Cadets up to the early 1960s. By only offering engineering and agricultural degrees as well as the Corps obligation, it’s kind of amazing to think that a rural university in Southwest Virginia with the reputation for being a predominately white, southern, male, military, engineering school (which let’s face it, it was) slowly grew its total enrollment from over a hundred students in 1872 to around 5,000 just after World War II.
However, shortly after the war, national interest in agriculture began to significantly decline along with enrollment at Virginia Tech, which was now essentially whittled down to being a niche military engineering school.
Then in 1964 and 1965, Virginia Tech finally made the necessary strategic decisions to help grow the university in the form of relaxing mandatory Corps participation and adding the Colleges of Science, Architectural and Urban Studies, Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and Business, all of which had a HUGE impact on growth.
As you can see, VT’s enrollment averaged nearly double-digit growth for over a decade after the changes; however, the expansion could also be considered as more of a ‘right-sizing’ effort to get back on track, depending on how you look at it.
In the post-expansion era, Virginia Tech’s growth ebbed to a more sustainable 1% average annual increase over the last 40 years, despite the additions of the Colleges of Veterinary Medicine, Natural Resources, and the Carillion School of Medicine, to where it stands today at roughly 35,000 total students for the latest 2019-20 academic year.
It is amazing to think that the strategic decisions made in the early 1960s helped establish the foundation of future potential high-income alumni who are now able to grow the university endowment as well as the Hokie Club. In fact, in the two decades following the expansion, Virginia Tech added roughly 20,000 extra Hokies.
Without the expansion and additional alumni, where would VT be today? One thing for sure is, Virginia Tech would not have the 250,000+ Hokies currently represented in the Alumni Network.
Actions have consequences, good or bad. Just think about the moment when Frank Beamer flirted with UNC following the 2000 season. Would the athletic department have been able to crack open the piggy bank and bring Beamer back with the promise of extra pay for him and his staff without the additional alumni that were added during the expansion? Probably not.
Alright, enough with the history lesson, on to the next question!
Does Virginia Tech even want to grow?
Looking at VT’s enrollment levels since the expansion, it seems as if the university was content with consistent enrollment growth while incrementally adding the Colleges of Veterinary Medicine, Natural Resources, and the Carillion School of Medicine, along with improving Tech's national and global reputation as a top research university.
After looking into Virginia Tech’s updated strategic plan, Beyond Boundaries, it doesn’t seem like VT is still content with just sustaining the status quo.
At least not in the near term considering Virginia Tech is already on its way to meeting a few of its current strategic goals to include:
- 30,000 undergraduate Hokies by 2023
- 7,900 graduate students by 2024, to include 4,550 Master's and 3,350 Ph.D.'s
That translates to a total enrollment of at least 38,000 Hokies in the next few years.
But with the expansion of the School of Medicine at the Roanoke campus as well as VT’s growing presence in the National Capital Region, it makes sense that the total enrollment would increase by roughly 3,000 to that level by 2024.
However, according to the campus master plan, by 2047 Virginia Tech plans to add roughly 58% in additional gross square footage to the main campus alone, mostly in the form of mixed-use student housing, new academic facilities, and recreational spaces, all of which are designed to support additional students.
Just so we don’t gloss over that last point, Virginia Tech plans to add ALMOST TWO THIRDS MORE to the current amount of campus facilities over the next 25 years!
While I recognize that not all of the new buildings will be intended to house additional students, it also wouldn’t make sense for VT to invest such a significant amount of capital towards new infrastructure if the goal wasn’t to support a substantial increase in enrollment (and I would consider 58% more capacity to be substantial). If it turns out that these projects are not primarily focused on growing VT’s future enrollment, I would have a problem with the Beyond Boundaries master plan.
If VT wants to grow, then by how much?
Determining the amount of planned enrollment growth was a bit trickier.
Since the master plan doesn't provide a specific future enrollment benchmark beyond 2024, you have to look around at Virginia Tech’s competition to get a better idea for the anticipated growth.
Now if you were immediately triggered by the word ‘competition’ and quickly referenced the generally self-congratulating nonsense that is the US News Rankings to see Virginia Tech’s latest standing (FYI, it’s #74), then you failed to understand a few basic concepts:
- What is Virginia Tech as a university?
- Who is Virginia Tech competing against?
- What does it mean to compete as a land-grant university?
The answer to the first one is easy. As previously stated, Virginia Tech is a public land-grant research university with a mandate of producing as many technically proficient graduates to help support the local talent pipeline, as evidenced by having almost 70% of VT’s current enrollment involved in a STEM type major.
This isn’t to devalue rankings altogether, as knowing where you stand can help provide a road map for improvement, but context is key when assessing Virginia Tech’s true rank which should only be against… other land-grant universities.
That’s because public land-grants have the incentive to produce more graduates, which generally leads to higher enrollment rates and makes it difficult to achieve some of the weighted ranking metrics such as smaller class sizes, higher average standardized testing scores, and higher graduation rates.
Simply stated, more people, more problems.
But if the ranking metrics are skewed to reward things like graduation rates, class sizes, and SAT scores, then large public land-grant universities will always be at a competitive disadvantage against smaller more selective schools for (steps on a soapbox)... DOING WHAT THEY ARE MANDATED TO DO!
OK, rant over.
So where does VT stack up against other land-grants? Well, among the original 70+ land-grant colleges, VT currently sits at #15 (and yes, I referenced the US News Rankings, but with context!).
A glance at the rankings reveals a common theme, the average size of each school’s undergraduate enrollment. Of the 14 universities in front of Tech, the average undergraduate (main campus) enrollment is around 34,000 students. Keep in mind, this already aligns with VT’s current strategy to grow its undergraduate enrollment to 30,000 by 2023, and the desire to scale up facilities to improve Tech’s capacity to accommodate them.
But how much beyond 30,000? We'll get to that in a moment.
In addition to growing enrollment, competing against other land-grants entails increasing the levels of research funding, more national and global faculty recognition, and improving graduate outcomes. If Virginia Tech wants to succeed in each of these competitive areas, then its future ranking and reputation are more likely to improve by scaling up enrollment.
It is also important to note that simultaneously comparing yourself with 14 other schools is tough, so it would make sense to use one school ranked ahead of you to help serve as a benchmark as you compete.
So which land-grant university is the MOST like VT from the list?
By process of elimination, the school would have to be of similar size (to include enrollment and campus acreage), research capacity, emphasis on engineering, and rural location.
Just to clarify, why does being rural matter? Believe it or not, Virginia Tech’s rural setting is an incentive to differentiate it from the pack for students who are specifically looking for the “big campus in a rural environment” experience, so logically, it makes sense for VT to benchmark itself against other schools who also attract this same type of prospective student.
That primarily leaves (drum-roll please)… Purdue University!
Purdue, and its 32,672 undergraduate Boilermakers, is well within the range of Virginia Tech's current enrollment, and if you factor in graduate students, Purdue's numbers climb to almost 45,000.
With Purdue as its benchmark, it wouldn't surprise me if Virginia Tech similarly wanted to grow its total enrollment to similar levels, and possibly more, given the planned increases in campus facilities over the next few decades.
(Side note, Virginia Tech also sees Purdue as a competitive benchmark, which is probably aided by the fact that VT's current President, Tim Sands, formerly held the same position at Purdue. Also, for those that freaked out, I’m referring to ACADEMIC
benchmark, I’ll touch on athletics in a future column.)
What is the strategy that will help Virginia Tech grow over the next 25 years?
Pulling this all together, the question to answer now is, how does Virginia Tech as a university plan to out-compete the likes of Purdue, given the context of Tech’s history, mission, assets, and desire to grow? Essentially, does Virginia Tech have another growth strategy in mind, such as the ones implemented from 1964-65, that will help VT grow its enrollment, outperform the competition, and reach the next level?
The answer is... I believe Virginia Tech already has the wheels in motion on its future competitive edge and strategy, which is to double down on higher-level technologies. I’m not just referring to engineering, but rather technologies related to health care, robotics, codification, cyber-security, and data science, all of which are the key to Virginia Tech’s future growth.
By investing heavily in Tech’s ability to produce more graduates that are better prepared to enter the higher level technological industries, VT can also increase its research capacity, faculty recognition, and university ranking.
Thankfully, two major events already ignited Virginia Tech’s strategic push to graduating higher levels of tech talent in the form of the Innovation Campus, located in Alexandria, VA, and the acceptance of over $550 million in state grant funding from the Governor’s recent Tech Talent Investment Program that is designed to help churn out over 16,000 Computer Science and Computer Engineering graduates from Virginia Tech over the next 20 years (with an emphasis on Master’s degrees), all of which will position the Commonwealth of Virginia as one of the leading producers of home-grown tech talent.
Just for some additional perspective on how CRITICAL Virginia Tech is considered by the state to help bolster its homegrown tech pipeline, just follow the money. The second most funds administered by the Tech Talent Investment Program went to George Mason University, totaling $238 million, or just over half the total funding of Virginia Tech, and in a far distant third place… those “lol-UVA-able” neighbors to the north received only $33.5 million.
Another important factor to consider is that the Tech Talent Investment Program isn’t trying to establish Virginia as an up and coming tech region, but rather it is designed to inject homegrown Virginia Tech graduates into a market that is already ranked as one of the most tech-talent rich areas in North America.
Washington DC is ranked #2 behind the Bay Area in tech talent according to CBRE. With Amazon HQ2 also under construction in neighboring Arlington, VA, the Innovation Campus as well as the Tech Talent Investment Program are game-changers for increasing the demand of a Virginia Tech degree.
However, what also positions Virginia Tech so strongly for future growth isn’t just having the premier location of the Innovation Campus situated in the heart of the tech talent-rich Washington, DC metro area right next door to Amazon’s HQ2, it’s the fact that the main Blacksburg campus also enjoys relative proximity (~5-hour drive) to so many of the other locations that are also listed in CBRE’s Top 50 Tech Talent rich markets to include Raleigh-Durham, Baltimore, Columbus, Charlotte, Pittsburgh, Richmond, and Virginia Beach.
If you consider the Innovation Campus as an extension of Blacksburg, the list of cities expands to also include New York, Philadelphia, and Newark (NJ) which is vital to growing the Virginia Tech brand even more in the Northeast since NY, PA, and NJ already represent three of the top ten largest current Hokie alumni networks in the United States, not counting Virginia.
Bringing it all home, if Virginia Tech realizes the benefits of the Tech Talent Investment Program and the expansion of the Innovation Campus in the National Capital Region, then we could be witnessing another expansion era type strategy that would fundamentally change the long term trajectory of Virginia Tech being recognized as one of the premier public land-grant universities, beyond just beating out Purdue.
Lastly, as a reminder, even if the strategy to produce more tech-savvy graduates into the higher-level technological industries only sustains 1% enrollment growth for the next 25 years, that still translates to around 48,000 total Hokies enrolled in Virginia Tech by 2045 and a future Alumni Network of 440,000+ in Hokie Nation! An increase of almost 200,000 more Hokies!
Just think about the possibilities Virginia Tech could unleash with an Alumni Network that is almost twice the size of today and is full of more youthful high-income earners.
So by implementing a growth strategy that fulfills the land-grant mission, improves Tech’s national and global recognition, taps into the available high-level tech market, and significantly increases the enrollment size and earning potential for future graduating classes, there is a reason to get excited about Virginia Tech’s trajectory over the next few decades.
Who knows, we might even play Wisconsin by then too.
See you in the future Hokie Nation!