Higher Education Numbers in W.Va. Just Don’t Add Up

The past two weeks have been very interesting if you pay attention to higher education in West Virginia. If you’re not paying attention, you should because it will likely affect your wallet when it comes time to send your kid out to get a degree.

When rumors started spreading about what would ultimately be called the Blue Ribbon Commission on Four-Year Higher Education, the word on the street was West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee was helping Gov. Jim Justice draft an executive order to put all the regional colleges and universities under WVU control.

That rumor turned out to be false … or did it?

As I reported last Sunday, current and former members of the WVU Board of Governors — along with Gee — control a plurality of the new blue ribbon commission. Despite being one of three co-chairs, Gee was placed in charge of the commission.

And now, one week after having her name floated, WVU Tech President Carolyn Long (another former WVU Board of Governors member) was put in control of the Higher Education Policy Commission — the body that regulates the regional colleges and universities. This was over objections from the HEPC’s own legal counsel, who believed her hiring went against state code.

So, you tell me: is WVU trying to take over the state’s higher education system? Let’s hear from a prominent education leader, such as Dr. Mary Hendrix, president of Shepherd University.

“We are witnessing — in disbelief — an unprecedented hostile takeover of our higher education governing body in WV,” Hendrix wrote in an email. “They influenced the removal of the HEPC chancellor and replaced him with a WVU administrator — with less academic credentials than Chancellor Paul Hill. This situation is incredulous — that proper vetting and garnering support for this radical change that affects the lives of so many individuals — did not occur.”

I don’t know if this is all a scheme by WVU to take over the state. But data points to a possible future that doesn’t bode well for WVU if things continue on. Data from the HEPC shows that WVU saw a drop in in-state student enrollment, from 54.3 percent of total headcount enrollment in 2008 to 48.1 percent in 2017.

Why is that? WVU likes to say it’s a bargain, and it is, but for out-of-state students. If you’re from New Jersey, I imagine WVU is a great price for an undergraduate degree. But in a state where high school graduates barely have the grade point average to qualify for the PROMISE scholarship, WVU becomes a pricey affair. The liberal West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy says tuition increased by 147 percent at WVU between 2002 and 2016.

WVU just increased their tuition again by 5.73 percent in May. WVU needs students, and preferably in-state students. It also needs to keep its current funding intact. The proposed performance-based funding model being developed by HEPC at the request of the Legislature would cut WVU’s state funding by 8.9 percent.

If nothing else, the blue ribbon commission gives WVU an opportunity to thwart the efforts of the Legislature to put the performance-based funding model in place. With Long as interim chancellor and an HEPC filled mostly with WVU-affiliated commissioners, that clears the way for the funding formula to be tweaked further.

That’s the best case scenario. The worst case scenario is WVU starts assimilating some of the regional colleges and universities. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Creating a system similar to the University of North Carolina is something that we should talk about. UNC has 17 campuses under its umbrella and is a powerhouse for research. Imagine a system where WVU and Marshall have multiple campuses. It would eliminate redundancies, allow schools to play to their regional strengths instead of trying to offer all things to all students.

The Legislative Auditor’s Office said in a 2009 report that West Virginia has too many colleges and universities for the state’s population at that time. Our population has only gotten smaller since that report first came out. Another report, officially released this week by the HEPC, also calls for changes to the public college and university system, specifically singling out Bluefield State College and Glenville State College as high risk.

We should openly talk about this as well. I’m sure it made sense to have as many public colleges as we did when the state was more rural and harder to navigate. But today we have multiple four-lane highways, more dependable vehicles, and growing broadband making online learning easier. Closing a school is above my paygrade, but I’d argue all things should be on the table for discussion.

If the goal of the blue ribbon commission is to create a new university system, our leaders should be transparent. Stacking the bench to get a pre-determined result is not transparency. Doing an end-run around the Legislature — the representatives of the people — should be discouraged.

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Of note: when Carolyn Long was named the interim chancellor for the HEPC, WVU appointed Gerald Lang to sit as interim president of WVU Tech.

If that name sounds vaguely familiar, it should. Lang was the provost for WVU until he resigned in June 2008. While provost, WVU’s business school granted a master’s degree to Mylan CEO Heather Bresch — the daughter of current U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. The only problem is Bresch hadn’t actually earned the credits for the MBA. An independent investigation found that WVU officials falsified her records to make it look like she earned credits she hadn’t actually earned. She was 22 credits short of earning the MBA.

Since those days, Lang has held a number of positions at WVU, including vice president for academic affairs, dean of the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences and was a provost at WVU Tech until last June.

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