CHARLESTON, W.Va. — When West Virginia, up against budget struggles, reduced funding to its higher education system by $16 million for the coming fiscal year, it was far from the first state to do so.
“The quick overview is that higher education is sometimes referred to as the balancing wheel in state budgets in that it is the largest single program in state budgets that is not formula driven,” said Arturo Perez, fiscal affairs program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“When things get tight in state budgets, whether it’s a recession or a fiscal situation, higher education tends to be the first to go to in terms of making reductions in spending. When states find themselves on the recovery side it often is the program that finds an acceleration in spending.”
That’s how it was in West Virginia, where legislators ended a special session with no agreement on raising more revenue and so looked to cuts to balance the budget.
The three greatest areas of spending for West Virginia’s budget, as with most states, are education, healthcare and higher education.
Public K-12 education amounts to about $2 billion in general revenue spending in West Virginia. The state school aid formula limits the cuts that can be made, although this budget has $5 million in cuts to education programs such as technology specialists and school innovation programs.
The Department of Health and Human Services amounts to a little more than $1 billion in state spending, mostly for Medicaid. The Legislature tried to shore up Medicaid, which is subject to federal match, through transfers and expected surpluses.
So that left higher education, with about $400 million in annual state spending, as the biggest remaining target.
Some lawmakers, particularly Democrats, said they were aghast that the state would cut higher education during a time of economic transition. In particular, they objected to increasing reliance on student tuition.
“To balance the budget on the backs of these students and these families who are drowning in students loans is wrong,” said Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha. “It’s worse than that; it’s immoral.”
West Virginia University takes the biggest reduction at about $7.4 million in reduced state spending from the prior year. WVU goes from $110 million in state funding this past year to about $103 million for the coming year.
The WVU medical school is subject to a spending reduction of $1.4 million. It goes from $21.4 million in state funds to $20 million.
That’s a portion of WVU’s overall budget. Counting tuition and fees and other revenue sources, WVU brings in about $1 billion in total revenue.
So compared to overall revenue, the state funding cut amounts to a little less than a percent.
WVU is expected to announce this week how it will handle the state cut.
In a letter sent out last week, President Gordon Gee said the university budget, working in the new numbers, will be presented to the university’s Board of Governors for approval in a few days.
“Clearly, we had hoped for less of a reduction, but we will make the most of the investment we have been provided,” Gee wrote.
Marshall University is cut from $48.4 million in fiscal 2017 state spending to $44.5 for the coming year. That’s a $3.9 million cut — or about 8.1 percent — of state funding.
Marshall’s medical school funding is reduced by $267,000, or 2 percent.
Marshall’s total revenue, counting tuition, fees and other revenue, is about $266 million a year. So the total percent cut is 1.58 percent.
Marshall’s Board of Governors is set to meet this Wednesday. In April, the board approved three different possibilities to raise tuition to match state funding cuts.
Based on the three scenarios, the board seems likely to finalize a tuition increase of 8 percent. That would generate $2.4 million in revenue but would not fully make up for the decreased state funding.
Among West Virginia’s smaller schools, Glenville State College is already making plans for how to absorb reduced state funding.
Glenville’s state funding is going from $5.9 million last fiscal year to about $5.6 million for the coming fiscal year. The $268,000 decrease is a 4.6 percent reduction.
Glenville’s total revenue, counting tuition, donations and other sources, is a little more than $24 million. So the state funding decrease is, in the larger scheme, a little more than 1 percent.
College leaders say they’re going to hold the line on tuition at Glenville. For in-state students, tuition, fees, room and board are about $17,000. Mostly symbolically, Glenville actually dropped tuition by a dollar.
Glenville is sensitive to student costs, said college board chairman Gregory Smith. He said Glenville has sought efficiency and also refinanced some debt, allowing the school to pay only interest for a couple of years.
“We’re gonna cut everything we can to make it more affordable to the student,” Smith said during a news conference last week.
Delegate Brent Boggs, a Democrat whose district includes the Glenville area, said he is concerned about the state funding reduction even though the Glenville State is preparing to handle it.
“I’ve taken to the floor on many occasions calling out the leadership and many of the members of the Legislature simply for what I believe are shortsighted cuts to higher education simply because at a time when our economy is changing we should be doubling down on higher education and community and technical colleges, not cutting,” said Boggs, a former Finance Committee chairman.
“Our schools have gone years sustaining cuts because there’s only three or four areas you can actually cut in the budget — DHHR, public education and higher education. It seems like every year for the past several we’ve gone to higher education for more and more and more, and it’s just not there any more.”
That’s the situation many states have found themselves in.
Since the Great Recession in 2008, states have provided less and less funding for higher education per student, according to figures compiled by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That’s true of every state except Montana, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
Arizona is at the top of the list with a 55 percent reduction in higher education spending per student between 2008 and 2016. West Virginia is 13th on the list with a 23.6 percent reduction in spending per student over the period since the recession.
Schools have made up the difference through tuition increases, cost-cutting or a combination of both.
“Higher education is the one program in the state budget that is viewed as having its own source of funding, which is tuition and fees — which, put in the big mix of decision-making, results in the reduction of state funding from past years,” said Perez of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“You can’t really increase spending on Medicaid fees. You can’t do the same for corrections. You can’t increase public education fees for public education students. There’s no such things. That combination is a balance wheel in state budgets. All that combined is what often drives higher education funding decisions among the states.”