Fewer public colleges would save state money, lawmakers say

Jake Jarvis , Staff writer

 

At least two state lawmakers have suggested that some public colleges in the state should become private or close entirely to save the state money.

Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, wants the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine to become a private, non-profit school. Sen. Ed Gaunch, R-Kanawha, wants a general review of the number of colleges in the state and their proximity to each other in hopes that some schools aren’t necessary any more.

Any kind of overhaul of the state’s higher education system would have to come from the Legislature and could take up to a year to be fully realized. Neither Blair nor Gaunch are on the Senate’s education committee.

“There’s an education committee, and that’s one thing, but there’s also an economic development committee,” said Paul Hill, chancellor of the state’s Higher Education Policy Commission. “I think they have to come to some conclusions about the types of things they have in their communities and what they want to keep and whether or not that investment, whatever the size of it is, has a greater added value to the community as a whole.”

Unlike some other state agencies, public colleges were largely saved from further slashes to their state appropriations in this year’s budget and only retained last year’s 4 percent cut in the middle of the fiscal year.

All the while, all but two public four-year colleges in the state have seen decreasing headcount enrollment numbers — some drastically. From 2011 to 2015, Bluefield State College’s headcount dropped almost 28 percent, Concord University’s headcount dropped 19 percent and Potomac State College of WVU dropped 18 percent, according to data from HEPC.

West Virginia State University during the same time period saw a 13 percent increase and the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine saw a modest half-percentage gain.

Looking at those numbers alone might be misleading. After the housing bubble burst in 2007 and the United States fell into a recession, Hill said many West Virginians went back to school to find jobs in different career fields, potentially spiking the headcount enrollment for a few years after that time.

Hill said HEPC’s early projections on headcount enrollment for the next few years show the numbers leveling off and then continuing to grow.

Either way, Gaunch is concerned about those numbers. Blair, though, is concerned only with WVSOM. He’s drafting a bill that would allow WVSOM to go from being a public college to a private one.

Blair contacted WVSOM about a month ago with the idea. He figured that “cutting through the red tape” and avoiding the bureaucracy of state government would allow the school to grow faster than it currently is.

Becoming a private institution won’t change how many students the school accepts into its program, according Dr. Michael Adelman, president of the school. The school is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission and the Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation, and is only allowed to accept 200 students in each class.

“It’s a little different when you go for an accreditation in a medical school setting, because there are limitations from our perspective of how many students we can teach medically,” Adelman said. “They have to have clinical rotations, they have to get into hospitals during their training.”

But WVSOM going private would save the state about $7 million each year. This year, the state gave the school about $6.9 million, according to Jessica Kennedy, HEPC spokeswoman. The school’s appropriations have been dipping slowly since 2012, when it received nearly $8.2 million.

Adelman said most of that money goes to keeping tuition costs low for in-state students. Incoming first-year medical students from West Virginia can expect to pay about $21,500 in tuition, in addition to other related fees and living expenses. Out-of-state students will pay nearly $53,000 in tuition their first year.

Will in-state tuition skyrocket if the school goes private?

“The two may meet somewhere in between,” Adelman said. “But again, that’s something we have to flesh out.”

Of the 33 osteopathic schools in the country that the Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation accredits, only six are public. Adelman said most of the schools don’t offer different tuitions for in-state versus out-of-state students but rather, one price for both.

For now, WVSOM’s Board of Governors is in a holding pattern, waiting for action from the Legislature before making any moves. The board approved a resolution at its June meeting that supported the idea to go private.

Gaunch isn’t so much concerned with WVSOM as he is for the entire system of colleges in the state. In June, as lawmakers tried to reach a budget deal during a special legislative session, he gave an impassioned speech about the state’s budget impasse and began to touch on the state’s system of colleges.

“The truth is, I think we have too many,” Gaunch said Friday. “They’re obviously valuable to their communities. It isn’t a matter anymore in my mind of do we need them, it’s can we afford them?
Gaunch wouldn’t say what colleges he thinks should be closed, consolidated or privatized. He did say that it’s hard not to look at the colleges in the Southern corner of the state, though.

At the beginning of the fall semester, Bluefield State, Concord and West Virginia University Institute of Technology will all operate within about 50 miles of each other. WVU Tech, which had been headquartered in Montgomery because of language in state law, is allowed to close that campus because of a bill Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed in March.

“At one point, the Legislature did consolidate [Bluefield State and Concord] into a single entity. That lasted only a short period of time,” Hill said. “The Legislature was in session, they passed a bill that consolidated them into one, and then within a matter of days, they decided that it wasn’t going to work.”

At HEPC’s meeting on Monday, commissioners will vote on reauthorizing 10 colleges in the state, including Bluefield State and Concord. In order to confer a degree, colleges must have the commission’s authorization.

Institutions submit data about themselves to a Compliance Review Team for review. That team looks at several things, including graduation rates, licensure pass rates and student loan default rates. The team has several concerns about Bluefield State, including declining enrollment and a 59.7 rate of retention, and about Concord’s declining enrollment.

Would the commission ever not reauthorize a school?

Hill said it’s possible and that authorization has been delayed before, but that would be a signal to the school that the commission needs more information before authorizing it.

“We’ll continue to be looking at the system, I mean, that’s our job to keep looking at it all the time and making sure that we’re providing accurate information on performance and value,” Hill said. “And particularly, making sure that students get a quality education regardless of whether they go public, private, or at a two- or four-year.”

Reach Jake Jarvis at jake.jarvis@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-7939 or follow @NewsroomJake on Twitter.