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Higher education system holds tight while adjusting to pandemic challenges

West Virginia’s higher education system is making a relatively flat budget request for the next fiscal year, although there will be some adjustments for the pay raises promised by Gov. Jim Justice.

The system is also rolling out a new funding formula that will be more incentive-based than past methods. And the system as a whole is continuing to adjust to the effects of the covid-19 pandemic.

Dr. Sarah Armstrong Tucker

Higher Education Chancellor Sarah Armstrong Tucker presented the proposed budget for the state’s colleges and universities to the House Finance Committee on Friday morning.

“Our colleges are creating the workforce for the state of West Virginia,” she told the lawmakers. “Our institutions work hard to promote entrepreneurship, to promote innovation.”

But she acknowledged that has been a real challenge over the past couple of years as the student population copes with covid-19.

In particular, she said the number of female participants in the community college system has dropped noticeably.

“Our adult female students are dropping out of higher education in the community college system,” Tucker said, noting that many are having to make hard choices about how to take care of their children if schools or daycares are closed.

“Working mothers have dropped out of higher education because they can’t balance all the things they’re being asked to balance at the same time.”

West Virginia’s four-year institutions, where many students are fresh out of high school, have had different experiences. In some cases, enrollment dropped as students put off college until life returned closer to normal.

“Kids didn’t want to go to school. They knew they were not going to have a normal school experience,” Tucker said.

She added that significant numbers of incoming college students have had trouble with core high school classes because of disruptions from the pandemic. “We need to make sure they’re successful,” she said.

The new funding formula for higher education institutions has good buy-in so far, she said. But it has been a challenge to find a fair way to compare institution to institution. The answer so far, has been to compare the performance of institutions to themselves year to year.

“We set up a model where they are competing against themselves,” she said.

If numbers such as enrollment or attainment show institutions are doing better, Tucker said, she will request more money for them. If the numbers show the institutions doing worse, she will request less money.

“So it doesn’t matter if Marshall or WVU or any of the other schools have huge increase and a small school has a smaller increase,” she said.

“The expectation is that the institutions are improving, graduating more students and meeting more course needs.”

Dianna Graves

Delegate Dianna Graves noted that Blue Ridge Community and Technical College in the Eastern Panhandle stands out for a strong track record of increasing enrollment.

“It looks like Blue Ridge is literally the only school that from 2016 onward had enrollment increase,” said Graves, R-Kanawha. “If you see a school outperforming other schools in other metric, do you get with them? What is it that they’re doing so right?”

Tucker responded that yes, if an institution is experiencing a challenge she often directs leaders to other schools experiencing successes. “I say ‘You need to call this person. You need to have a conversation about what they’re doing and now to fix it.'”

Larry Rowe

Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, asked whether the entire higher education system would be provided the average 5 percent pay raises requested by Governor Justice. The pay raises are paid through the general fund, and colleges collect much of their financing through special revenue such as tuition and fees.

“I’m concerned it might push tuition increases,” Rowe said.

Tucker agreed that the system doesn’t allow for institutions to receive funding for the average 5 percent raises through the general fund. She said one answer in years past has been to “provide a lower percentage increase to everyone so they can spread that out.”




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