Shan Cawley, who comes from a low-income family in Weirton, said she learned to believe in herself at WVU. But now she may see her program, the doctoral program in higher education, eliminated. Photo courtesy Shan Cawley.

MORGANTOWN — A first-generation West Virginia University student from Weirton, Shan Cawley struggled in high school but has thrived in Morgantown.

“My senior year of high school, my father was an alcoholic. My mom was working 80 hours to pay the bills,” she said. “So I was like, ‘this is not the life that I want.’ I go to college and my life completely changes.”

WVU was the only school she applied to. Now a second year doctoral student studying higher education, she wants to research the struggles students like herself face when entering universities. But earlier this month, administrators recommended her program be cut, throwing her future at WVU into question — she’s facing a distressing, first-hand experience in her very own area of research. 

Earlier this month, facing a $45 million budget shortfall due to declining state appropriations and tuition dollars, administrators proposed cuts to dozens of programs, including eliminating some degrees. One preliminary recommendation was to eliminate Cawley’s doctoral program in higher education.

Some programs are currently appealing the recommendations. Administrators released final recommendations for some programs that appealed last week; while some programs, like Cawley’s, are still up for elimination, they recommended keeping some programs after all, but significantly reducing faculty. The WVU Board of Governors will vote to approve the cuts on Sept. 15. 

School administrators have said they’re focused on strengthening programs in high-demand areas, a goal President Gordon Gee first outlined in 2020. Degrees like the master’s degree in public administration and doctoral degree in mathematics are still on the chopping block. With the cuts, some students would have to look elsewhere to find their desired program. 

But Cawley said low-income students like herself “are quite literally just strapped to this institution financially and the administration doesn’t care.”

Nearly a quarter of WVU’s incoming students in 2021 were low-income, according to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

Cawley noted that more than likely, wealthier students have better test scores and they can afford to go out of state if they choose. But for state residents, WVU’s financial aid and location can make it the only option. 

“For a low-income first-generation student, you have the West Virginia Higher Education Opportunity Grant, you have the Promise Scholarship, you have the Pell Grant,” Cawley said. “And when you combine all of those with how low tuition is now, it pays pretty much for the whole thing.”

But it’s not just students paying in-state tuition that feel like they have few other options. 

Emma Stream, a freshman from Thurmont, Maryland, saved up for college for three years as a state park lifeguard and took out loans. She’s already paid her first semester’s tuition.

Emma Stream, a freshman from Thurmont, Maryland, came to WVU for its parks and recreation program, which administrators have now recommended for discontinuance. Photo by Erin Beck.

She wants to be a park ranger, so came to West Virginia, with its abundance of outdoor recreation, natural beauty and adventurous souls. She planned to major in recreation, parks, and tourism resources. “I was really upset, especially because I’m paying for college all by myself,” she said. “I thought it was really weird that they would take my tuition money and then cut my major.”

Administrators’ decision to eliminate the Recreation, Parks and Tourism Resources program was mystifying to professor Chad Pierskalla, too. Over the past few years, as WVU’s budget problems became more and more apparent, he created a joint program with the business school to train students in tourism and hospitality. He had thought the offering aligned well with state officials’ focus on growing the tourism industry by attracting outdoor enthusiasts to West Virginia. So he was shocked to see the decision to eliminate his program.

“We were really building up the strengths of the university and the strengths of the state,” he said, pointing to tourism. According to the West Virginia Department of Tourism, tourism’s economic impact last year was the highest in the state’s history with visitors spending approximately $13.6 million per day.

Chad Pierskalla, a professor in the Recreation, Parks and Tourism Resources program, was shocked to see his program, closely aligned with West Virginia’s thriving tourism industry, is up for elimination. Photo by Erin Beck.

Stream said similar recreation programs are uncommon throughout the United States, and she needed to find one close to home. She chose WVU because it had a great reputation, and Morgantown seemed like such a happy place. 

“I think the public should know that yes, students are angry,” she said. “But some of us are taking this a lot harder than others, because not all of us are in-state tuition.”

One of the justifications administrators have made for the cuts is declining enrollment. Today, around 5,000 fewer students are enrolled — and paying tuition — than in 2014. 

But Sophia Villano, a WVU senior from Bangor, Pennsylvania, said the potential elimination of many majors in the university’s Department of World Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics will make the school less able to recruit.

She is double majoring in acting and Spanish. WVU’s proposal to eliminate the world language majors, she said, would reduce diversity on campus, sending professors back to foreign countries. 

Sophia Villano, a WVU senior from Bangor, Pennsylvania studying acting and Spanish, believes world languages program cuts will make the university a less attractive option for those deciding on an institution of higher education. Photo by Erin Beck.

Villano was walking through the Canady Creative Arts Center on Tuesday when she read on a smartphone that administrators had made a final recommendation to cut the Spanish language major but leave a few classes. While seniors may be able to continue programs they are close to finishing as part of what the university is calling “teach-out programming,” she was still horrified by the continued proposed reductions to world languages programs.

“I think that the foreign language department is a really attractive thing about the school,” she said. “So to completely cut a program or cut funding for a program, I think is a stupid decision. I think that they’re gonna have less people coming into the university.”

Cawley, the student studying for a doctorate in higher education, had just left a course where the students had just discussed the Appalachian identity and exploitation in Allen Hall last week. 

“The research that I do on first-generation low-income students fuels me because I know that somewhere, somehow it’s helping another student who is like me sit there and say, ‘oh, it’s not me,’” she said. “The onus and the responsibility of this issue is not on me. It’s the system that I fall under.”

Now, she sees ties between the course and current plans to cut faculty positions and programs. If she is able to finish her degree and conduct research on low-income students’ experiences with institutions of higher learning, she may decide to research how WVU’s budget cuts affect low-income students, like herself.

Erin Beck is Mountain State Spotlight's Community Watchdog Reporter.