What is the Future for Higher Ed in West Virginia?
College tuition is going up across the country - and across West Virginia. Recently, the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission (WVHEPC) approved increases for several colleges and universities. Unfortunately, these increases come as many schools have seen a decline in enrollment.
- Marshall University: 9.1% (School of Pharmacy only)
- West Liberty University: 9.1% (Nursing program only)
- West Virginia University: 7.8%
- Fairmont State University: 6.6%
- Concord University: 5%
- Shepherd University: 4.96%
And as the cost of college continues to rise, the commission's website says enrollment at universities across the state has dropped by over 2,500 in the past three years.
Is the rise in tuition to blame for this downward trend? A report finds that West Virginia is one of only eight states that continues to reduce the amount of money going towards higher education in its budget as the economy recovers from the Great Recession. For this year, there was a 3.75 percent reduction.
Kent Gamble is the Director of Enrollment at Concord University. He says the school had little choice when deciding to increase tuition.
"The cost of business keeps going up and up, whether it’s a gas bill or whether it’s [an] insurance bill, and so I think that the university has to make an adjustment," Gamble says.
Concord is considered a regional university. In other words, it serves the counties that surround it. Regional universities are often some of the biggest employers in the areas they serve. Ideally, graduates from these universities can then go on to work in the state.
Gamble says that universities like Concord are vital to West Virginia’s recovery for this reason.
"We have a responsibility to drive the economy just like the mom and pop business does, or the larger employer in that county," Gamble says. "So I think we have a responsibility to drive students to get a degree, to get a four-year education or a masters.
One way to avoid tuition increases is obvious – increase enrollment. But Gamble realizes that the old technique of attracting student right out of high school is not broad enough.
"I think that for any institution in West Virginia that’s small, diversifying its enrollment is going to be key to ten-year success, or five-year success, or one-year success," Gamble says. "You can no longer rely on the first time freshman to drive enrollment. Even though it’s a big part of your enrollment, you can’t rely on it."
WVHEPC Chancellor Paul Hill has high hopes for the future of higher education in West Virginia despite the declining state support. He says that there are positive signs of an economic upturn on the horizon.
"We think there is some optimism within the state budget in the long term while the state budget office indicates we’re still going through this downturn, there are some signs that the budget will recover in the next year or so and we would hope that there would not be any further cuts to higher education in West Virginia," Hill says.
Hill and his team at the WVHEPC have made a master plan for increasing enrollment at West Virginia universities. Here's a breakdown of the plan:
- Access: Increase access to postsecondary education for West Virginians.
- Success: Increase the amount of students graduating from universities in the state.
- Impact: Increase the amount of graduates from West Virginia universities who contribute to the state's workforce after obtaining a degree.
Hill says the actual process of learning will change, having an impact on the future of higher education.
"I think [in] the future we’re going to see a lot more use of technology in our education, we’re already seeing a lot now," Hill says. "But I think we’ll see a lot more in what we call ‘blended learning opportunities,’ more online opportunities.
And what about the actual college students? Why are they here? Jasmine Jimenez is from Connecticut and attends Concord University. She decided to attend college in West Virginia because of the lower costs.
"The tuition increases are coming at every state, but it also has a lot to do with the cost of living and the poverty levels and what not in those states, and Connecticut versus West Virginia is always going to be cheaper," Jimenez says.
But Jimenez also remembers some of the things that were discouraging her from attending college back in high school. For her, there seems to be a lack of coordination between the colleges and high schools.
"High school students are told that this is the price, this is how much it’s going to go up every year and that’s all they see," Jimenez says. "They don’t do get any sort of encouragement that they could afford these schools and go to schools and they won’t have to be in debt."
Despite the nearly annual tuition increases at its colleges, West Virginia continues to be a higher education bargain as in Jimenez's case. And attracting more out-of-state students could be a key to increasing college enrollment because the state does not produce enough high school graduates each year to keep its college classrooms filled.