Michael Friedlander

By Jim Stroup/Virginia Tech

Michael J. Friedlander, executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute

Michael Friedlander delivers keynote address to college presidents

Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, gave the keynote address at the opening of the 2014 Annual Meeting of the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges on June 27. Nancy Agee, a recently appointed member of the foundation’s Board of Trustees, introduced Friedlander to the audience of college presidents and board members. Agee is chief executive officer of Carilion Clinic.

Friedlander, who is also associate provost for health sciences at Virginia Tech and senior dean for research at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, spoke about the return on investment of higher education for individuals and society. In his address, he countered some popular misconceptions that suggest a college education and the associated debt that many students incur are not a good investment.

He discussed the results of a recent report from the Federal Reserve of San Francisco that found that workers in the United States with four-year college degrees earn over $800,000 more in their lifetimes than those without. He also discussed recent findings of several major studies on the long-term physical and mental health benefits of higher education for an individual’s quality of life.

Friedlander further cited a February 2014 study from the Pew Research Center that found a college education is even more valuable than it has been in the past. College-educated Millennials—those born after 1980—are more likely to report satisfaction in their jobs than their counterparts with only high school educations. They are also more likely to have full-time employment and less likely to live with their parents or in poverty.

The current educational environment pressures institutions of higher learning to yield better results with fewer resources, Friedlander added. He placed those demands in the context of a shrinking timeframe for return on investment, and he said stockholders, corporate boards, political institutions, and even military interventions are all being held accountable. He also noted the effects of these shorter timelines on the brain’s decision-making capabilities and how myriad fields—including research, health care, and government services—can be affected by this stress.

Friedlander discussed the biological processes of effective adult learning, particularly in the context of current changes in educational models, such as massive online open classrooms and real-time, interactive, small-team based learning. Braiding together the two themes of increasingly shortened time horizons for expectations of payback and models for effective college education, Friedlander encouraged the presidents to use their classrooms as vehicles for bringing the long view of investment returns into discussions of topics in the sciences and the humanities.

“Climate change and health care are not the only topics that demand resistance to the short view,” Friedlander said. “The physical sciences, law, politics, business, and engineering all have discoveries, applications, and policies that should be placed in the context of costs and benefits over generations. Only then can we most effectively consider return on investment.”

To demonstrate the consequences of impoverished long-term views, Friedlander cited research by teams of investigators at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. Led by Warren Bickel, director of the institute’s Addiction Recovery Research Center, these teams have identified pathological processes in the brain’s decision-making capacity with respect to valuing the future. Bickel’s teams have measured these pathological processes in people who suffer from addiction.

Founded in 1952, the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges comprises 15 of Virginia’s private colleges and universities, including Bridgewater College, Emory & Henry College, Hampden-Sydney College, Hollins University, Lynchburg College, Mary Baldwin College, Marymount University, Randolph College, Randolph-Macon College, Roanoke College, Shenandoah University, Sweet Briar College, the University of Richmond, Virginia Wesleyan College, and Washington and Lee University.

The foundation assists its member institutions by connecting them to donors and raising money for scholarships and other programs.

Among the more than 130 people attending the annual meeting were the presidents of the member colleges and their board members, including many leaders of major private and public businesses and organizations.

Written by Susannah Netherland