The higher education system is holding its own while adapting to the challenges of the pandemic
West Virginia’s higher education system is making a relatively stable budget request for the next fiscal year, although there will be some adjustments for salary increases promised by Governor Jim Justice.
The system is also deploying a new funding formula that will be more incentive than previous methods. And the system as a whole continues to adapt to the effects of the covid-19 pandemic.
Chancellor of Higher Education Sarah Armstrong Tucker presented the proposed budget for state colleges and universities to the House Finance Committee Friday morning.
“Our colleges create the workforce for the state of West Virginia,” she told lawmakers. “Our institutions work hard to promote entrepreneurship, to promote innovation.”
But she acknowledged that it has been a real challenge over the past two years as the student population copes with covid-19.
In particular, she said the number of women participating in the community college system has decreased significantly.
“Our adult female students are dropping out of higher education in the community college system,” Tucker said, noting that many are having to make tough choices about how to care for their children if schools or daycares are closed.
“Working mothers have dropped out of higher education because they can’t balance all the things they’re being asked to balance at once.”
West Virginia’s four-year institutions, where many students are fresh out of high school, have had different experiences. In some cases, enrollment plummeted as students postponed college until life returned closer to normal.
“The children didn’t want to go to school. They knew they weren’t going to have a normal school experience,” Tucker said.
She added that a significant number of incoming students have struggled with core high school classes due to the disruptions caused by the pandemic. “We have to make sure they succeed,” she said.
The new formula for funding higher education institutions enjoys good support so far, she said. But it has been difficult to find a fair way to compare one institution to another. So far, the answer has been to compare institutions’ performance to themselves from year to year.
“We’ve set up a model where they’re competing against themselves,” she said.
If numbers like enrollment or results show institutions are doing better, Tucker said, she’ll ask for more money for them. If the figures show that the institutions are doing less well, it will ask for less money.
“So it doesn’t matter if Marshall or WVU or one of the other schools has a huge raise and a small school has a smaller raise,” she said.
“Institutions are expected to improve, graduate more students and meet more course needs.”
Delegate Dianna Graves noted that Blue Ridge Community and Technical College in the Eastern Panhandle stands out with a strong record of increasing enrollment.
“It seems like Blue Ridge is literally the only school that, as of 2016, has seen an increase in enrollment,” said Graves, R-Kanawha. “If you see a school outperforming other schools in other metrics, do you get along with them? What do they do, right?”
Tucker replied that yes, if an institution encounters a challenge, it often directs leaders to other schools that are experiencing success. “I say ‘You need to call this person. You need to have a conversation about what they are doing and now to fix it.
Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, asked if the entire higher education system would benefit from the average 5% salary increases sought by Governor Justice. Salary increases are paid through the general fund, and colleges receive much of their funding through special revenues such as tuition and fees.
“I’m afraid that will push tuition fees up,” Rowe said.
Tucker agreed that the system does not allow institutions to receive funding for average 5% increases through the general fund. She said one response in years past has been to “provide a lower percentage increase to everyone so they can spread it out.”