The University of Southern Delaware

by Dave on June 5, 2008

The University of Southern Delaware. Could it be possible? Why hasn’t it been done before?

Go to the Coastal Sussex Video Player to see my 20-minute interview with Randy Nelson and Walt Lydic about their idea for a four-year university in Sussex County.

Here is their original proposal, from March of this year:

It’s the classic chicken and egg argument: what comes first, high-paying jobs or an educated, skilled workforce? It’s a riddle that Delaware politicians, educators and business leaders have been unable to solve as they struggle to bring new enterprise to the state. The problem is compounded in Sussex County by a lack of affordable housing, high land prices and transportation issues that keep new businesses from making a commitment to moving to Delaware.

Then consider Delaware’s changing demographics. Over 134,000 Delawareans are over the age of 65. The fastest growing population in the state is over 70. Delaware has the highest percentage of seniors over 80 on the east coast, including Florida. Most of that senior influx is occurring in Sussex County, and with that senior growth will come enormous challenges, both economic and social.

The graying of Delmarva – and of the country – will require hundreds of thousands of jobs in the medical and health community. Already, the country is facing daunting shortages in elderly care, physical therapy, nurses, nuclear technicians and pharmacists. Both the American Medical Association and AARP have sounded the alarm about the impending medical crisis facing the country. And it’s not what you think. While health insurance coverage is surely one of the issues facing us, insuring all Americans won’t matter much if we don’t have the medical facilities and the personnel to care for our aging population.

So how do you educate our young people and give them the skills that will to serve the future needs of the people of Delaware? One idea might be to transform Del Tech from a two-year commuter college to a four-year destination university focusing on health and medical issues. This transformation would provide the kind of education and high paying jobs that might solve both of our problems. And it would be a tremendous economic stimulus to a state losing tax dollars and jobs.

A first class university, complete with new learning facilities, dormitories and affordable housing for teachers, administrators and graduates could be a blueprint for the county and state’s long-term economic growth while addressing one of its most significant challenges. With a booming senior population and an educated work force, the medical industry will follow.

Professional occupations usually require at least a bachelor’s degree in a specialized field in a specific health area. That would be at least one of the stated purposes of this new academic institution.

The number of medical professionals needed throughout the United States over the next 20 years is staggering. Over one million nurses will be needed. Additionally, over 100,000 pharmacists, nearly 250,000 physical therapists and approximately 153,000 nuclear technicians will need to be hired to fill the void as the baby boomer generation reaches retirement. That’s a lot of jobs and a lot of educating.

So how do you pay for a new university, as a centerpiece of economic growth that addresses our future medical needs? With the real estate market in shambles, the state’s share of transfer tax dollars has slowed to a trickle, revealing the risk of basing government revenue on a market that fluctuates. Income tax revenue is declining and is projected to continue its downward trend. The federal government may take over the corporate tax fees the state has been reaping for decades, furthering depleting the state’s source of revenue. The math doesn’t look good. And that was before the recession.

Taxes are never popular. But what will be more unpopular is a society that hasn’t planned for its future medical needs and a state that won’t be able to care for its elderly or attract the types of professionals that can. More unpopular will be a state that continues on an educational policy that just hasn’t worked. More unpopular will be a government that can’t attract jobs, but likes talking about it.

Currently, Del Tech is proposing a 0.28 percent increase in the real estate transfer tax to fund expansion. And while this fee does not add a tax to current residents, basing revenue on the transfer tax is risky business.

The state could consider raising property taxes to pay for expansion. Delaware ranks 47th in the nation in property tax rates and most states use property taxes to fund education. It could be one of many small increases to fund the new university.

Another idea might be reassessment. The state has not reassessed property values since 1974. While no one seems to know exactly how much money would be raised by reassessment, it will certainly raise funds that could be earmarked for higher education.

It will be controversial, but maybe an alcohol sin tax could foot the bill. Let’s face it, in Sussex County we have two primary industries – real estate/development and tourism. Millions of people come to the shore for our beaches and bars. A five to 20 cent tax on every alcoholic beverage sold in the state would raise millions of dollars.

So far, Del Tech has refused to consider raising tuitions, particularly with the majority of enrolled students coming from the immediate area. That’s understandable and commendable considering the skyrocketing cost of education. But it’s also unrealistic. Any expansion must include some tuition increase that fairly charges students for the education they receive and the future income they will receive for that education.

Another approach is to examine how other universities around the country have combined education and medical facilities on their campus. George Washington, UCLA and Florida have successfully broadened their educational and medical facilities in partnership with business and the medical community. They have successfully expanded their university by sharing the cost of building these new facilities with businesses desperate to educate a new work force.

Medical companies have been some of the biggest providers of financial assistance to higher education programs, especially over the last decade. It makes sense. They need the work force. These partnerships have resulted in research centers and in-training hospitals on college campuses around the country. These partnerships have resulted in higher learning, better medical care and economic revitalization.

The state has other options to help the project along, including making available for free some of the land purchased for open space to the new university to make it more attractive for major businesses to consider spending millions of dollars to locate a medical facility that works with the university in delivering care. The county could change zoning laws to allow high-rise dormitories that would provide income to the new university. Zoning laws within the campuses direct radius could be changed to allow for high-rise condominiums for our new work force to live. Rather than sell the recent gift of 954 acres, Del Tech may want to consider using that land for expanding the university.

Finally, grants from the U.S. government for higher education, particularly medical, have been on the rise and could help supplement funding.

Think it can’t be done in rural Delaware? Consider that many universities started in rural communities and built thriving economies around them. Penn State, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Auburn, Virginia Tech, Ohio State and Mississippi State are just a few examples of academic institutions that used education as an economic model for growth while simultaneously providing their communities with skilled workers.

There are other educational possibilities for this new university as well. An energy department could lead the nation in developing new technology, focusing on wind, solar, tidal, nuclear and other forms of energy development. The university could even be built “green” with solar panels and wind generated energy (assuming its okay with Delmarva Power). This new university may also want to consider another area of higher education a few institutions are just beginning to tackle: An Intelligence and National Security program. Courses of study could include emergency planning and security measures, domestic terrorism, mass casualty management planning, cyber crime, terror risk assessment, post terror investigation techniques and foreign languages like Arabic, Chinese and Spanish. The same types of business partnerships that could work for a new medical facility could also work for this kind of expansion as well. The Department of Homeland Security is currently issuing grants for this very kind of educational endeavor.

It should be noted that Del Tech has already made a commitment to overhauling the types of education it provides with an emphasis on nursing and other health related fields of study. No doubt, more changes are coming to the educational curriculum at Del Tech as Sussex County becomes less of an agricultural market. Taking the next step to a four year university while structuring the curriculum to match the nation’s changing demographics and future needs could place it as the centerpiece of the state’s future economic development while addressing some of our most pressing local and national issues.

Perhaps the state’s leaders, in conjunction with the University of Delaware, Del Tech and Beebe Medical Center, could begin to plans to address some of the state’s most pressing future issues by examining new ideas.

By Randy Nelson and Walt Lydic

Ocean View, Delaware.

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