Virginia: Growing at the Top

Success Factors

Virginia has 4 out of 6.


There must be a vision for what a state wants to achieve, from governors or other key policy makers.


Leadership vision must be backed by a clear policy agenda, based on evidence, that is adopted and implemented.


As policy is being implemented, aligned supports – including funding – are provided to increase the chances for success.

Strategic Alignment

Intentional coordination is made across policy and funding to better connect work in Early childhood, K-12, Postsecondary, and Workforce.

Stakeholder Engagement

Efforts to improve student success are backed by stakeholders with a vested interest in improved outcomes (parents, students, the business community, advocates, philanthropies).

Sustained Commitment

Improving access to opportunity for all young people requires efforts to be sustained, often over many years and across political administrations.

Key takeaway

Virginia has capitalized on a strategic alignment of leadership, funding, and policy implementation to boost its college graduation rates from already-lofty levels. Between 2014 and 2018, 42,000 additional adults between the ages of 25 and 34 obtained bachelor’s degrees or higher, 10,000 of which were Black adults.

The wins: 

Virginia is consistently in the top quartile of states across several indicators and continues to see gains in college attendance and attainment rates.

Highlights from 2014 to 2018:

  • Enrollment in post-secondary school for 18-to-24-year-olds increased by two percentage points for Black students and four percentage points for Hispanic students from 2014 to 2018.  58% of all 18-to-24-year-olds were enrolled in post-secondary school.
  • A four-point increase in 25-to-34-year-olds with an associate degree or higher from 2014 to 2018, for a total of 54%.
  • The number of 25-to-34-year-olds with a bachelor’s degree or higher grew by four points since 2014 to 46%, ranking sixth among the 50 states.  This increase includes four percentage points for both Black and Hispanic young adults, equivalent to 42,000 additional 25-34-year-olds with a bachelor’s or higher.

How it happens  

While already a high-performing state, Virginia continues to make progress toward closing attainment gaps due to leadership setting a clear vision for the strategic alignment of policy and supports, including funding, from the state. 

Strategic Alignment

Virginia has a history of strategically aligning efforts across leadership, fundingsupports, and policy implementation. Aligned policies implemented through the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV), as outlined in the Virginia Plan for Higher Education, have driven strong post-secondary performance. 


The strong agency leadership from SCHEV is a result of the political structure in the state (single-term governor) and a long history of commitment to post-secondary education. Due to this leadership, Virginia has a strong community college system with highly centralized governance. For example, Northern Virginia Community College is one of the largest community colleges in the country.  It receives significant philanthropic support, and it is highly diverse. This system is a national leader in embracing student success reforms and initiatives, such as Achieving the Dream, developmental education reform, Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnership (LEAP), and the Office of Student Success


SCHEV set out an ambitious objective for Virginia to be the best-educated state by 2030 and identified four key policy areas to make progress towards that objective:

  • Access and affordability
  • Student success
  • Innovation and investment
  • Economic and cultural prosperity


Compared to many states, Virginia has a strong statewide longitudinal data system (SLDS) It has a history of investing in the SLDS to better understand the student pipeline, and the system collects data from all public and private post-secondary institutions. It has several useful functions, including the ability to disaggregate most of the data, capture information on degrees and non-degree credentials, and link state K-12 and workforce data.

The state has also increased support for need-based aid. Between 2011 and 2015, Virginia saw a 141% increase in need-based grant and scholarship program expenditures.

Why it matters:

Virginia utilized its strengths in leadership to create a strong post-secondary environment.  Policy efforts are focused on a clear goal and achievable strategies.  Leadership has dedicated meaningful financial support to improving data systems and increasing affordability for students in the state. Combining these elements has resulted in Virginia’s longstanding position at the top of K-12 and post-secondary indicators.

What to watch

Virginia’s continued economic success relies on talent moving in from out of state. One area for policymakers to watch is improving education success for its current residents.