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Two recent blaring headlines have underscored what many have been saying for several years now: Roanoke is becoming a center for higher education.
No, the Star City does not house a major university, and research is limited. It is not home to 25,000 infrastructure-straining students, and higher education’s economic impact does not yet run into the high nine figures.
But the growth is undeniable, the energy high, the intercollegiate cooperation unprecedented and the national recognition growing.
Dr. Cynda Johnson, president and founding dean of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, arrived in Roanoke eight years ago and since then growth “has exceeded expectations. We have had more success more quickly than I expected.” Johnson speaks in an excited, rapid-fire staccato, her energy flowing fast and furious when she says, “It has developed at rocket speed. We were able to do what no other new medical school in the country can do.”
The college recently announced spectacular planned growth: A new $67 million building, doubling the size of the VTC Research Institute, as well as Tech’s investment of $100 million in health sciences and technology in the next eight years. Tech will move its biomedical engineering and neuroscience programs to Roanoke and in five years, 500 to 1,000 students, faculty and scientists will work at the Riverside campus.
Meanwhile, the Virginia Community College system, which turns 50 years old this year, plans to locate its central administrative services—the back office for 23 colleges on 40 campuses—in Daleville at the former nTelos building. The result will be 200 new jobs in time, and $9,200 a month in rent to Botetourt County. No students will be educated at the center, but the center represents an important educational component and a virtual clinic in efficiency for education and business. (See sidebar.)
Educational opportunities abound in the Roanoke Valley for high school grads, workers seeking to improve skills, older people wanting to re-invent themselves and even for high school students wishing to get a jump on college by taking courses early. There are specific courses designed for businesses leaning on new machinery or technology, two-year curricula that save students with a goal of a bachelor’s or master’s degree a lot of money. The possibilities are nearly endless, where only a few years ago they were limited.
The Roanoke Valley has two four-year liberal arts colleges. There are two business colleges, a medical school and research institute. The Higher Education Center houses 16 colleges and universities. The Gill Memorial Hospital is becoming a business accelerator, which could easily be considered an educational institution. Jefferson College is a first-class medical education center. There is a culinary education center, affiliated with VWCC. And these institutions often work together to squeeze out every bit of value they contain for the students.
Look a little further afield and you see Virginia Tech—a huge player in Roanoke’s educational growth—plus Radford and Washington & Lee universities, VMI, Liberty, Lynchburg College, Sweet Briar, four other community colleges and lesser institutions that create educational mass and value.