WV HEPC trumps low tuition, high enrollment

Published: January 25, 2012 8:26 AM
By Adam Cavalier
WV HEPC trumps low tuition, high enrollment
By Adam Cavalier
January 25, 2012 · West Virginia’s Higher Education Policy Commission touted low tuition and higher enrollment to the House Education Committee Tuesday, but it came with a caveat of poor retention rates.
West Virginia public colleges and universities have more than 94,000 students milling about their collective campuses. That’s 8.2 percent more than five years ago. Interim HEPC Chancellor Paul Hill said the challenge is keeping those students there.
“I have to channel my predecessor Brian Noland and really emphasize the cracks in the pipeline,” Hill said. “For every 100 ninth graders today, 72 will graduate from high school, 43 will enter colleges as freshmen, 28 will be there the following year as sophomores and then we will get 17 graduates out of that…
"We have work to do certainly there, keeping students in school, ensuring that they graduate from high school and also those that choose to go to college can complete it.”
More than 32,000 students departed college with no degree from 1998-2007. That makes regent’s programs a high priority for Education Committee member Tiffany Lawrence.
“We have a great number of citizens in this state that do have 60 or so hours that never completed even associate’s degrees or four-year college degrees,” Lawrence said. “I think we need to be focusing on those individuals and trying to re-enroll them in programs such as the RBA to hone their skills and obtain their degrees.”
The cost of those degrees is lower then typical – an average of just a shade more than $5,500. All of West Virginia’s public colleges and universities are in the top six for low tuition when compared to 20 of their peer institutions. Hill said the affordability and aid make West Virginia’s higher education system tick.
“We have a very solid system,” Hill said. “One of the goals I have is to keep the momentum moving forward to ensure that we don’t lose any of those components and manage that where we can be complimentary and provide additional support, we will continue to do so.”
Low tuition is a big reason why Putnam County Democrat Brady Paxton said he thinks West Virginia’s higher education system is doing just fine.
“I remember I was campaigning and a woman came up to me and said, ‘We’ve got to stop so many people from coming into our state and taking advantage of our low tuition,’” Paxton said. “I said, ‘Ma’am, I love every one of them.’ That’s one thing that runs our institutions, the bargain that West Virginia is and we are a good bargain.”
Out of state students account for more than 25 percent or roughly 25,000 for total enrollment, for West Virginia University, nearly half of the school’s population comes from out of state. 
Even with increases in both in-state and out-of-state enrollment, Hill said higher education is competing for a limited about of state dollars, but even with tight budgets, Hill said it’s important to keep on-going initiatives moving forward.
“All agencies in state government are dealing with the same set of issues,” Hill said. “Which rise to the level of urgency or direct need that allow us to go forward.  Obviously we’re going to keep our initiatives going forward and see what can be done.”
Those initiatives include a $1.6 million operation budget increase for West Virginia State, a $1 million appropriation to start WVU’s school of public health and a figure to be determined for WVU Tech’s revitalization. 
That figure is listed as TBD because a panel at Tech is reviewing specific areas to determine where to provide funding for the school. An HEPC report released in the fall indicated that Tech would need $5-7 million a year over the next five years to be at an appropriate level. Education Committee Chair Mary Poling said it’s important for the state to stay the course when it comes to funding.
“Our main effort right now is to maintain the level of funding and not go where other states have,” Poling said.
“New Hampshire is a prime example. They cut higher education state appropriations by 49 percent, which meant a comparable raise in tuition for their students. I like to quote New Hampshire because it’s very similar in its rural nature to West Virginia.”
Paxton says he attended college on the GI Bill. He said it’s crucial that West Virginia natives take advantage of the opportunities
“One thing it proves is that we were born of strife, a war and things like that. It means that we want to give everybody a chance,” Paxton said. 
“Now if you get that chance and you don’t take advantage of it, don’t come back. But it says West Virginians are very forgiving and we try our best to help people that are down on their luck.”
At 2.8 percent, West Virginia is one of eight states that saw an increase in its state operating support for the 2012 fiscal year. North Dakota had the highest increase at 6.8 percent; New Hampshire’s was cut nearly 50 percent.