While Marshall University and West Virginia University prosper, some of West Virginia's smaller state-supported colleges and universities struggle. Gov. Jim Justice brought that fact to light again earlier this month.
Justice was in Bluefield to announce $1 million in state support for two capital projects at Bluefield State College. Half of the money will go toward construction of a new student housing complex. The other $500,000 will help build a new student union.
The housing complex, known as Heritage Village, will house 120 to 140 students on campus. The first phase of the complex should be open next fall, with the remainder opening in fall 2021. It will be the first on-campus student housing at Bluefield State since 1968. That year, a bombing at the school resulted in the closing of all dorms there.
"This facility will have people in it very, very, very soon, and here we go at Bluefield State. And absolutely you've waited too long. Fifty years is ridiculous," Justice said at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new dorm last week.
The West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission counts nine state schools in what it calls public four-year institutions. Their headcount enrollments in fall semester 2018 ranged from 1,266 at Bluefield State to 4,033 at West Virginia State University. Bluefield State was one of four schools with enrollments of fewer than 2,000 students. The others were Potomac State College of WVU at 1,339, Glenville State College at 1,586 and the WVU Institute of Technology at 1,752.
Concord University barely made it over the 2,000 mark at 2,027.
Every now and then there are questions raised about whether West Virginia can afford so many state-supported schools. Bluefield State and Concord are within 20 miles of each other, so the question of whether the two schools should be merged comes up every now and then. The early discussion stage is as far as most of those questions get.
From fall 2008 to fall 2018, only four of the nine four-year schools recorded enrollment gains. West Virginia State had the most, growing from 3,110 to 4,033. Bluefield State lost 677 students and Concord 773. Both schools face the same pressures West Virginia Tech faced before it was taken over administratively by WVU - population declines in their primary market areas; students willing to travel farther for college; lack of amenities and social opportunities that are available elsewhere; and the growth of the community and technical college system, among others.
So it would seem the schools are ripe for some sort of administrative consolidation to cut costs.
But Bluefield State's status as a historically black college complicates its future going forward, although in 2013 NPR described the school as America's whitest historically black college.
Bluefield State's status as an HBCU undoubtedly will have to be dealt with should the Legislature decide some colleges should be consolidated or closed. It's a tough question politically, and so far legislators have been able to postpone any such action.
Higher education mergers have happened before. In 2014, Bridgemont CTC in Montgomery and Kanawha Valley CTC in South Charleston were merged to form BridgeValley CTC.
Sooner or later, as state funding for higher education faces more competition and as tax revenues get tighter - a distinct possibility as more coal-fired power plants close and that industry shrinks further - consolidation and closings may have to be considered. Or some programs at some schools may have to be eliminated.
It won't be easy, but as the higher education landscape changes, some smaller schools may have to adapt.