The inevitable cutbacks in West Virginia higher education have begun. The question now is how far they will go before the decade is out.
Last week, West Virginia State University President Ericke Cage announced the school will cut seven faculty positions and phase out two degree programs. As reported by HD Media’s Josh Ewers, Cage sent a letter to faculty and staff Wednesday notifying them of forthcoming “reductions in personnel levels,” “phased elimination of underperforming academic programs” and “reduction of non-essential goods and contracted services.”
Cage declined to identify the specific degree programs being cut but said that each has fewer than 20 students enrolled and noted that the university is making provisions for students to complete their degrees.
Cage said the school’s budget is balanced, but he said fiscal challenges are “on the horizon” and the moves will save the university about $5 million over the next budget cycle.
“It is no secret that the global pandemic and the forthcoming national ‘enrollment cliff’ has ushered in unprecedented changes to the higher education landscape,” Cage said. “Nationally, and here in West Virginia, we are seeing decreases in student enrollment, renewed questions about the value of a college degree, and increased demands from students and parents for more flexibility in the delivery of a college education.
“The reality is that the status quo in higher education will not return and that, as an institution, we must embrace the urgency of now and reposition ourselves for success in this new environment.”
Those last two paragraphs sum up the challenges facing higher education in West Virginia and Appalachia as a whole.
In the private sector, such steps as those being taken by WVSU are called “rightsizing” or “aligning payroll with resources.” State-supported schools here and elsewhere have been shielded from such steps by friendly legislators, but state support is decreasing, so schools must adjust.
Everything will be reviewed for benefit-cost ratio. Athletic departments are seen as marketing tools for schools, but governing boards will need to determine which sports are viable and which are not. Title IX gender equity requirements and conference contractual obligations will need to be considered, but if enrollment and state support continue to fall, everything will need to be on the table.
Above all else, governing boards of state schools must remember their primary duty is to preserve and improve the academic programs at their institutions. Academics first, all else second, but programs with low demand, low effectiveness or low need shouldn’t be exempt.
Higher education has found itself subject to the same market forces that have brought about change in other economic activities. What students wanted or needed in 1970, 1990 or 2010 might not align with what they will want or need in 2030. Change is coming. WVSU is taking the first steps to adapt to it. Other schools will follow. They will have no choice.