With at least three major proposals in the works for higher ed – the New College in Southside, the Charter Plan by the big three and the governor’s plan to allow high school students more opportunities to take college level course – the Daily Press makes sense in asking what’s the overall strategy of higher ed in the state.

Consider the developments that drove these three plans to the forefront: the growing importance of a college-educated work force in the state’s competitiveness, the increase in demand for college admission, the need to expand access in an under-served region, the rising cost of higher education, and the dilemma of top-flight universities whose quality and prestige are threatened by the state’s continued refusal to provide the funding they need.

A strategic plan would consider, with full understanding of these developments, the needs of all of Virginia’s students and all quarters of the economy for which the state must prepare if it is to remain prosperous. It must be complete, so that the piece of the puzzle represented by each of the state’s two- and four-year colleges fits in to form a whole, a picture that represents where Virginia needs and wants to go with respect to higher education.

And it must address the fundamental questions: Where does Virginia’s commitment to higher education fall within its priorities? In order to serve its students and its economy, what does it need to offer? What does the ideal mix of colleges and programs look like in terms of size, mission and location? Where are there gaps between what is available and what is needed? What will it take to fill those gaps? Are there duplications among colleges, or excess capacity in any sector? Where are the trouble spots in terms of access? Where do private colleges fit into the equation?

This is not about trying to impose centralized control on the state’s colleges and universities. But the proposals on the table could well change the shape of public higher education in Virginia. That shape must not be determined by limited-scale plans tied to the needs of specific schools or regions or short-term political or economic circumstances. These new ideas will serve the state best if they are shaped within a guiding framework that reflects Virginia’s long-term interests.

The state boasts a system of higher education that is one of the finest in the nation. It didn’t become that way by accident, and it won’t stay that way if its future is left to chance or partial solutions dictated by the crisis of the moment.