West Virginia University photo

Last summer, the West Virginia University Foundation — the institution’s fundraising arm — touted in a news release that it had raised a record $270 million.

Foundation President and CEO Cindi Roth said the number “speaks volumes about the generosity and commitment of our alumni and friends.”

WVU President Gordon Gee said the private donations help the university attract students, retain faculty and bolster research programs. “West Virginia University is so fortunate to have such strong and unwavering support from our alumni and friends,” Gee said.

But there’s one group that hasn’t been as supportive of WVU or the rest of West Virginia’s public colleges and universities: lawmakers who control the state government’s purse strings.

Those growing private donations the WVU Foundation announced so glowingly mask a hard reality: that public funding for higher education has continued to drop, even as the state’s students and its economy need help the most.

Between 2013 and 2020, state funding for West Virginia higher education institutions decreased by 14%, according to an analysis by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. Since 2010, the average tuition and fees at a four-year public college in West Virginia have gone up by 33%, or $1,855.

Those numbers have real-world impacts. 

The decrease in state funding and increased tuition in West Virginia has led to lower enrollment — particularly among low-income students. Between 2010 and 2017, the number of low-income students enrolled at West Virginia colleges dropped by nearly 17%.

“When tuition went up, you saw a real impact on affordability and enrollment,” said Sean O’Leary, senior policy analyst at the WVCBP. “Even before the pandemic we were seeing enrollment declining, both in two-year and four-year, down about 6%. It’s about 13,000 students over the past decade.”

West Virginia is hardly alone. Across the nation, state lawmakers cut higher education funding during economic hard times, said Rachel Fishman, deputy director of higher education research at New America, a public policy group.

“There just isn’t enough revenue and we see a decline in state support,” Fishman said. “And then we often see an increase in tuition to try and have these institutions make ends meet. Now you have that happen enough times over a period of decades, it starts eroding overall support for higher education.”

But West Virginia, especially at this moment of historic economic transition and upheaval brought by the ongoing pandemic, may be especially in need of a focus on its higher education system.

Just 29% of West Virginians over the age of 25 hold an associate’s degree or higher, according to federal data. And O’Leary said research has repeatedly found that the lack of college graduates in the workforce has held back West Virginia’s economy.

“That’s one of the chief things that makes the state attractive to investment, and we don’t have it, and we’re going in the wrong direction when it comes to that,” he said. “We’re not making improvements. We’re not making college more affordable. We’re not investing in it.”

This graph, from a 2021 budget presentation to faculty by WVU Vice President Rob Alsop, shows the overall decline in state funding for WVU from 2013 to 2020. University officials have said state appropriations declined by 1.5% in fiscal 2021.

This year’s state appropriations declined 1.5%, totaling $1.7 million, said WVU spokeswoman April Kaull. University leaders have said they do not anticipate a resurgence anytime soon.

“Given the current makeup of the Legislature and the current trends in higher education, we certainly wouldn’t expect a V-shaped recovery in state appropriations over the next decade and what we’ll be hoping for is stability,” Rob Alsop, vice president for strategic initiatives, told faculty representatives during a 2021 budget presentation.

Reduced public funding also means that attracting and keeping students, so the higher tuition checks keep coming, is essential. 

Long before the pandemic, the cost of tuition and fees at WVU had gone up — a lot. Between fiscal years 2014 and 2020, the tuition rates for in-state and out-of-state residents attending WVU went up by 28%. 

However, administrators have found that they raised the sticker price too quickly and now must discount the price to attract and retain students. Discounted aid is unfunded — meaning there’s no cash behind it — as opposed to cash payments, private loans and donor-backed scholarships. 

As tuition prices increased, WVU more than doubled the amount of discounted aid given out, from $49 million to $104 million. 

Alsop said these are necessary discounts for WVU to compete for an annual pool of high school graduates that is expected to shrink in coming years.

WVU did not raise tuition and fees for the 2020-2021 school year as previously planned, citing financial challenges for families and students during the pandemic. 

The university’s governing board approved a nearly 2% tuition rate increase for the 2021-2022 school year to account for a small freshman class and the expected reduction in state appropriations.

At the same time, the method behind how higher education funding is determined in the state could soon be changing.

Last November, at a meeting of the Joint Standing Committee on Finance, Senate Finance Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, said higher education funding is “a bit arbitrary.”

“It’s very political, there’s not really any kind of objectivity to a formula and how we fund it,” Tarr said.

Gee agreed. “We for too long have been very scattered about how we fund higher education,” he said, adding that funding has been based on “local and community politics.”

Leaders from the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, WVU, Marshall University and the other four and two-year colleges and universities around the state have convened in recent months to design a higher education funding formula. 

Now, lawmakers are moving forward with a proposed funding formula similar to a performance-based model used by Tennessee. There are two bills moving through the Legislature that would create such a formula. 

The proposed new model would reward schools for student progression, graduation rates and research funding. The model would also place a premium on outcomes for low-income students, bachelor’s degrees completed within four years, and degrees awarded in job fields that are in high demand in West Virginia. 

Past attempts to design a funding formula have not ended well, but this version of the formula has garnered the support of the state’s two largest institutions, WVU and Marshall University. It also is supported by the West Virginia Council of Presidents, which represents the state’s other colleges and universities. 

The funding formula would take effect in Fiscal Year 2024 and only impact a portion of each institution’s funding. Based on the formula, state higher education leaders will suggest funding levels to legislators. 

The final decisions about how much money goes to each school will ultimately remain in the hands of state lawmakers and Gov. Jim Justice.

Duncan Slade is Mountain State Spotlight's Deputy Managing Editor