In case you weren’t paying attention over the summer, let us catch you up on West Virginia’s review of four-year college funding and governance.

Higher education has been in state news all summer, with WVU playing a prominent role.

The dialogue erupted unexpectedly, but it’s long overdue. Changes in enrollment at and funding for West Virginia’s public colleges over the past decade have led some to quietly question whether the state still needs 11 public four-year institutions. Others argue that all of the colleges serve important roles in their communities—that what’s needed is savvy differentiation among the colleges and a reinvigorated state commitment to funding.

All of that suddenly roiled to the surface and, in July, Governor Jim Justice created a Blue Ribbon Commission on Four-Year Higher Education headed by WVU President E. Gordon Gee. He tasked it with addressing two broad and important concerns: four-year college funding and sustainability as well as the role and value of the state Higher Education Policy Commission (HEPC) that oversees the four-year colleges.

The blue ribbon commission’s findings may have a seismic influence on the future shape of higher ed in West Virginia, including at WVU. Here’s a primer on how we got here and what happens next.

The HEPC’s funding proposal
In the spring of 2017, the state Legislature asked the HEPC to come up with a formula for the annual allocation of state funding among the four-year colleges. In recent years, allocation has been based mainly on prior years’ allocations, and the Legislature wants a formalized approach that is equitable and advances the state’s priorities for educating its residents.
In March 2018, the HEPC presented a formula-in-progress, its Student-Focused Funding Formula, constructed around the structure of its own 2013–18 master plan. To oversimplify a little, it laid out three measures:

Access: Number of credit-hours attempted by West Virginia residents;
Success: Number of undergraduate West Virginia resident students who are on track for on-time degree completion; and
Impact: Number of degrees completed by West Virginia residents, as well as by non-residents who remain in the state’s workforce for two years after graduation.

Assigning weights of 70 percent, 5 percent, and 25 percent to the categories respectively, the HEPC’s early calculations proposed to reduce the allocation from the general revenue fund to WVU’s main campus by 9 percent, to Glenville State College by 17 percent, and to WVU Institute of Technology by fully 44 percent. Other colleges would gain, up to as much as 36 percent for Shepherd University. The state is not the only source of funding for any institution, but such reductions would undeniably be significant.

During a spring public comment period, WVU raised concerns: among them, that the institutions should have been involved in devising the funding formula and that the data behind the model should have been made available. The comments noted that the proposal didn’t take fully into account WVU’s unique mission, scale, and effectiveness among West Virginia institutions. And they argued that, before any final funding model decisions are made, there should be a review of the overall structure of higher education, with a view to improving outcomes and raising the state’s return on investment in higher ed—a review that, as it turns out, has since been embodied in the blue ribbon commission.

Draft report on regional institutions
Meanwhile, a national higher education consulting firm filed a draft report in April with the HEPC on the viability of the state’s seven regional four-year colleges—those that are not Marshall University or part of WVU’s system. It made stark recommendations.

The state’s moves in recent decades to decentralize oversight of higher education have given institutions freedom to plan individually, the report noted. But in this period of declining state population and tight state funding, more coordinated decision-making is critical for using resources effectively and keeping all of the institutions relevant and, through that, viable.

The report recommended, among other measures, that the governing boards of Bluefield State College and Concord University, both in Mercer County in the extreme southern part of the state, be combined as soon as possible. It recommended over time creating an oversight board within the HEPC that would govern those two institutions as well as Glenville State College and West Virginia State University and would hold tighter reins on Fairmont State, Shepherd, and West Liberty universities.  This report came to the public’s attention in earliest July.  But before the outcry could resound, Governor Justice stepped in.

The blue ribbon commission
Justice rounded all of the funding and governance considerations up into one comprehensive new process in July by announcing his Blue Ribbon Commission on Four-Year Higher Education. In addition to appointing WVU President Gee to preside, he asked Concord University President Kendra Boggess and Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert to co-chair it with Gee.

Almost immediately after that, the HEPC board voted to replace its retiring chancellor, Paul Hill, with WVU Institute of Technology President Carolyn Long as interim chancellor—a suggestion Gee had made. With the independence of some institutions possibly under threat and the funding formula proposal pitting institutions against one another, some cried foul, saying WVU had assumed an outsize influence over the process.

But it has to be acknowledged that Gee brings venerable expertise to a high-level review. Not only did he serve an earlier term as president of WVU, from 1981 to 1985; he is now in his seventh university presidency—nearly three decades of that in three different state public university systems.

As this issue went to print, Justice called on the commission to make recommendations in line with preferences Gee has stated in the past: keeping all of the colleges open, with strong local control at each.

Although that goes counter to the April draft report’s recommendations, it may be possible. Governance is not an either-or, centralized-or-decentralized thing; it’s a matter of locating the right kinds of decisions at the right levels, says WVU Provost Joyce McConnell. “For example, say the Legislature says universities can spend up to $2 million on facilities without the permission of some state-level coordinating entity. But if they’re going to spend more, they have to report it so the entity can see if there’s duplication amongst facilities in the state.” Or a coordinating body could appropriately suggest that it would be in the best interests of the state if courses could transfer among campuses, giving students flexibility. “That makes sense,” McConnell says. “It’s making a decision that affects all of the campuses across the state, and it’s not micromanaging a particular campus.”

The governor’s mandate for the blue ribbon commission was vague. But the tenor of early-summer dialogue showed that the colleges and universities are prepared to take this moment seriously.
The HEPC continues to analyze comments it received about its Student-Focused Funding Formula through August. The blue ribbon commission’s findings are due to the governor by December 10, before the start of the state’s annual January-through-March legislative session.

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