BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. — Some members of the newly formed Blue Ribbon Commission are discouraged to see an absence of community colleges involved in Gov. Jim Justice’s plan to increase efficiency of higher education in the Mountain State.

The Commission held its organizational meeting Friday at the Bridgeport Conference Center, though not a single representative of any community college in the state was present at the table.

“How do you not include community colleges, the vocational education in public education,” state Sen. Roman Prezioso (D – Marion, 13) said just 13 minutes into the meeting. “It’s all a systemic feeder system. It’s life-long learning, and I think if we concentrate on the four-year higher education institution, we’ve missed a golden opportunity to look at the whole picture.”

Prezioso said he feels it is imperative that community colleges be part of the Blue Ribbon Commission, as they, too, are a vital part of education and workforce development in West Virginia, and says without including them the Commission will be a “colossal waste of time.”

“We need a complete education system from preschool through all of our professional programs, and if you’re going to look at this systematically you’ve got to bring in these folks,” Prezioso told WAJR following the meeting. “There are certain situations where the community colleges are tied to some of the four-year institutions, and by not looking at them, we’re going to do a tremendous disservice and we’re not going to complete our goal.”

Prezioso himself is a retired educator who focused on workplace development and career education. Now, he represents a senatorial district that includes Pierpont Community & Technical College.

“So I know how important it is, and for a lot of the jobs in West Virginia, we have to have a strong community college (presence), and if it’s not going to be a part of this process, we’re kidding ourselves,” he said.

Once discussion of including presidents and other representatives of the state’s two-year institutions was on the table, Fairmont State President Dr. Mirta Martin was quickly in agreeance.

“When we talk about higher education, it’s just not comprised of four-year institutions, it’s (also) comprised of the community colleges,” Martin said. “There has been conversation about how to become more efficient and more effective, how to stop duplication of cost, duplication of effort. How can we have a true, new model for 21st century education in West Virginia, when we’re not looking at every single provider of higher ed?”

Both Martin and Prezioso also have larger goals for the Blue Ribbon Commission, largely having to do with funding.

Prezioso has chaired both the education committee and the finance committee and admits that funding for higher education has always been a problem.

“To get a legitimate funding formula is very difficult. I’ve sat on various committees looking at funding formulas and none of them have come to fruition,” he said. “What happens is there are certain institutions that are paid more and get more revenues from the state and some that don’t get as much, and in order for that to even out, you’re going to have to get a funding formula that puts more money into the system or takes from those institutions that are getting more money and sort of even it out.”

When it comes to budget cuts, Prezioso said public education is almost always the first to suffer.

“I resent the fact that we go around the state and say that education is broke because we produce some quality individuals, but they have to go out of state to get a job once they complete a degree because there’s no jobs here,” he said. “It’s very difficult to grow an economy when you don’t have those jobs, and we’ve tried to do that with our tax structure and some of our incentives from business. So you’ve got to look at this thing systemically. If we just look at it in silos, we’re not going to get the job done.”

The key issues that the Blue Ribbon Commission outlined during the meeting were affordability, accessibility, retainment and graduation rates — all of which essentially boil down to the cost of higher education.

Martin said 80 percent of the students who drop out of Fairmont State do so because they can no longer afford the tuition to stay enrolled.

“If this commission were to create a more efficient and equitable distribution of funds where we look to avoid the duplication of overhead costs, and then we redirect those savings to the students, then we keep the students engaged in higher ed, we get the students to graduated, and then with that educated workforce, then we’re really making a shift into the future of this state,” she said.

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