Higher education

May 1, 2014

In the fall of 2013, total college enrollment at public institutions in West Virginia was down about 4.3 percent from 2009.

For a state with the some of the lowest educational attainment levels in the country, that is a big problem.

About 18 percent of West Virginians 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher, the U.S. Census reports. That is significantly lower that the national average of 28.5 percent and the lowest rate in the country — a point or two lower than Mississippi and Arkansas.

Certainly, the decline in enrollment is affected by demographic changes, including fewer high school graduates in some areas of the state. But West Virginia still has plenty of room to grow its college enrollment among those who need it most.

About 40 percent of high school graduates in the state do not go on to community college or four-year college, and that’s not counting the 20-25 percent of high school students who drop out before graduation.

So, how much of the decline is about affordability and the cost of a college education?

With another round of tuition increases this spring, that is something state leaders need to be watching very closely.

The Marshall University Board of Governors last week raised tuition and fees about 5 percent for in-state students, bringing the annual costs to about $6,524, not including room and board. With significant cuts in state funding, most board members apparently felt they had little choice.

Marshall has lost about $11 million in state funds in recent years, and the result has been about a 15 percent increase in tuition costs since 2011-12.

Even with those increases, Marshall is still a great value. The national average for in-state students is $8,893, according to the College Board’s Trends in Higher Education Report — more than $2,000 a year more than the cost for Marshall students.

But in a state with some of the lowest incomes in the country, the expense of college — even perceptions about the expense of college — has to be a factor.

The state certainly faces its own budget challenges with looming health-care costs and declining revenue. So finding additional funds or reallocating funds for higher education will be difficult. But if continued cuts to higher education translate into fewer graduates, West Virginia will pay a bigger price for many years to come.

It is time for lawmakers to tackle this issue and make sure the state is investing in schools and programs that are going to grow the number of graduates. That may mean linking funding to those results.

But standing by and watching enrollment decline is not an option. Our young people need a post-secondary education to prosper, and the state needs a more educated workforce to survive.

Higher education has to be a top priority for the 2015 legislative session.

— The Herald-Dispatch, Huntington