Accessibility of the VCU is key to increasing national standing

By H. BENSON DENDY III

During Bill Leighty’s Nov. 20 opinion piece [“VCU has lost its way”] contains several positive points about Virginia Commonwealth University, it falls short of the mark, making VCU a university that receives national attention for the very endeavors it champions.

Simply put, contrary to the subject of Mr. Leighty’s column, we believe excellence and accessibility are not mutually exclusive.

In my six years as a member of the VCU Visitors’ Committee, I have seen the university’s unusual commitment to providing access to bright and creative minds from diverse backgrounds who want to discover, care for the most vulnerable and solve pesky problems. For this reason, VCU supports access for students who may face barriers in entering and staying in college.

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President Michael Rao and the Visitors Committee’s vision and commitment to excellence and to being a truly public, truly accessible institution deserves national recognition. Earlier this month, VCU was one of only four finalists nationwide for the Association of Public Land-grant Universities’ 2022 Degree Completion Award, which recognizes public universities that increase graduation rates while improving educational access, quality and equity.

Earlier this year, VCU was invited to join the University Innovation Alliance, a consortium of national public research universities dedicated to increasing the number and diversity of university graduates. We are the only Virginia institution in the UIA, joining states like Ohio State, Purdue, Michigan State and others.

VCU enrolls the second-largest number of low-income students among Virginia’s public research universities. About a third of our students are Pell Scholars. A third are also first-generation students—the first in their families to go to college. Another third are underrepresented minority students.

We intentionally focus on programs that help students overcome barriers so they can be successful. For example, the Men of Color Initiative works to improve enrollment, college success, and post-graduation outcomes for Black and Hispanic men by using innovative approaches powered by data and research. VCU has also created an innovative student financial services center that teaches students how to manage money during their undergraduate years and beyond.

In addition to programs to attract more underserved students and support their success, VCU led the way in dropping the SAT and ACT requirements for admission years before others followed suit.

More than 86% of VCU students are from the state, making us truly Virginia’s university – and 65% of our alumni remain in Virginia and contribute to our economy and communities. While our student body will always be predominantly Virginia, our out-of-state students pay higher fees, which has a positive impact on revenue and contributes to the overall campus experience for everyone.

Since 2011, VCU has increased our graduation rate by more than 34 percent—an increase of more than 1,000 additional graduates each year—while increasing minority enrollment and reducing average student debt. Our four- and six-year graduation rates are above the national average. In fact, this fall, US News and World Report named VCU one of the top 30 most innovative public universities in the country, thanks to our ambitious efforts to empower student success and conduct groundbreaking research.

In 2009, President Rao and the then Board of Directors made a conscious decision to add emphasis to the research portion of the VCU’s mission of engaging in investigations that benefit society and our communities – and we are seeing results. In 2009, VCU researchers conducted $255 million in sponsored research. That year, our sponsored research totaled a university-record $400 million—a sum that ranks us among the top 60 universities in the country.

An example of our commitment to using research to improve our community is VCU’s leadership in the Alliance for Building Better Medicine, a coalition dedicated to developing high-quality, affordable essential medicines here in the United States. Earlier this year, the Alliance was awarded $53 million in the US EDA Build Back Better Regional Challenge.

Research like this is an integral part of VCU’s commitment to being a truly public institution that benefits society at large and the community around us. Led by President Rao and the Visitors Committee, the VCU is a national model for how excellence and accessibility in higher education can flourish alongside nationally recognized research that improves people’s lives.

Each Virginia university has a unique mission. VCU is proud of who we are and the outstanding students we serve.

I admire Bill Leighty and appreciate his outstanding service to the Commonwealth over five decades – including serving as Chief of Staff to former Governors. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. I know that Mr. Leighty shares our commitment to our mission to serve the needs of students and our community as a truly public university committed to excellence and access for all.

H. Benson Dendy III was appointed to the VCU Visitor Council in 2016 and has been rector since 2021. Contact him at [email protected]

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