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Steady state funding could have eased WVU’s financial gap, think tank concludes

West Virginia University is going through the difficult job of coping with a projected $45 million deficit. A West Virginia think tank has concluded that if state support for higher education had remained steady over the past few years, that would have nearly made up the difference.

If West Virginia lawmakers had kept higher education funding at the same levels as a decade ago, WVU would have an estimated additional $37.6 million in state funding for the coming fiscal year, closing the majority of this year’s budget gap, according to an analysis by the West Virginia Center for Budget & Policy.

Kelly Allen

“A big part of the story with WVU’s budget crisis is reduced state investment in higher education,” said Kelly Allen, executive director of the think tank.

“Higher education is always the first thing in the budget to be cut when times are tough, and lawmakers have never gone back and made up those funding cuts or losses as state revenues have grown and built back up in recent years.”

WVU is tightening its belt while facing the likelihood of being down $45 million next year — potentially growing to $75 million over the next five years if steps aren’t taken to control costs. University leaders are working through how to deal with that potential loss.

Officials have said the financial strain is directly related to declining student population.

For 2023, officials said, WVU had just more than 26,000 students. For 2024, the university projects 25,082 students.

That trend means it’s possible that WVU could lose 5,000 of its student population over a decade. If they’re paying about $14,500 in tuition, that means a total financial loss of $72.5 million over that time.

The university has been working on a framework and timetable for how to trim programs and positions.

The West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy’s analysis concluded that an additional factor is deeply reduced funding for colleges and universities.

Over the last decade, state higher education funding is down by about a quarter, adjusted for inflation, the think tank said. Over the same period, the value of the Promise Scholarship has eroded.

Temporarily, federal covid relief cushioned those financial challenges, according to the think tank.

“While students and families have long felt the impacts on tuition of reduced public investments in higher education, federal pandemic relief temporarily cushioned colleges and universities from some of the broader institutional impacts. As those federal funds are drying up, state funding austerity is fully in view,” the center wrote.

Nowhere have the impacts been more visible than at West Virginia University, where the administration plans to layoff faculty, eliminate programs, and implement a host of other cost reduction measures in response to the projected budget shortfall, according to the think tank.

“But far fewer of these measures would be necessary if state funding for colleges and universities had simply been maintained at the same levels as a decade ago.”

The issue of state funding levels arose last week during a WVU faculty senate meeting.

Amy Weislogel

Amy Weislogel, an associate professor of geology, questioned whether WVU’s financial situation could be eased through state funding.

“I hear the word right-sizing, and I cringe a little bit,” Weislogel said during that meeting.

“My interpretation is that we’re actually reducing the footprint, and we already have reduced the accessibility of what we offer students to the extent that our Promise Scholarship does not cover the tuition that it used to — and that has nothing to do with how well we teach our courses or how well we recruit students.”

The professor said that’s a financial barrier associated with lessened state funding.

“So is there any effort to restore the level of investment in higher education in West Virginia? Do you see that happening in the future, or is this kind of becoming a lower priority for the state, by and large?” Weislogel asked.

Rob Alsop

Rob Alsop, WVU’s senior vice president for strategic initiatives, responded. Alsop spends a significant amount of time at the Capitol during each legislative session, talking to lawmakers and sometimes testifying before committees.

“The past couple of years, we’ve actually seen our state appropriation increase a little bit, two or three million a year,” he said. “We are not up at the high watermark that we were back in 2011 or 2012,” he said.

“Honestly, I think having 5,000 students less than we had back in 2013, 2014, it’s hard — not impossible, but hard — to argue for more money given less enrollment and particularly because our enrollment has dropped a little bit more in state versus out of state. I think that’s a challenge, but it’s not for lack of trying in conversations in Charleston.”

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