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Higher education funding a never-ending issue

By Staff | Nov 1, 2019

Shepherd University and Blue Ridge Community College have been extremely poorly funded, compared to other public institutions of higher education in West Virginia. Why?

I believe it’s because our state has never had a funding model or formula for higher education. Other states have such formulas.

We have a funding formula for K-12 education, a strict dollar-per-student model. Its weakness is that it ignores the great differences in housing costs from region to region within the state. But at least it’s a formula.

Our higher education “formula” is nothing more than “whatever an institution’s base budget was 50 some years ago, that’s what it is now.” There have been across-the-board percentage increases and decreases, but no change in the relative funding of the various institutions. This means that the institutions that have grown the most are the least well-funded. Shepherd and Blue Ridge (which was part of Shepherd until about 20 years ago) have grown more than any of the other 19 four-year and two-year institutions.

Those funding increases, by the way, mostly took place between 1970 and 2000. Since 2000, the overall funding of higher education in West Virginia has decreased by about 25 percent. Most other states have seen decreases in higher education funding since 2000, but West Virginia’s percentage of decrease has been among the highest.

The result has been a series of yearly tuition increases, which I think has discouraged West Virginians from attending college. That’s nonsense. We need more West Virginians in college, not fewer.

But wait, some say, what about trade school? Won’t some people be better off attending trade school? Indeed they will, but many community college programs are essentially what we would call “trade” programs. A plumber or electrician will make more money over his or her carreer if he or she has a two-year degree to accompany that trade certificate.

Three different funding models have been adopted by the Legislature since 1980, but none of them were ever seriously implemented, because of bureaucratic inertia and opposition from schools that would lose funding. Only “new money” generated by small across-the-board increases was given in higher amounts to the more poorly funded schools.

Last year, the Legislature came up with a pot of money for both Shepherd and Blue Ridge, to at least partially even the balance. But we’re not sure how permanent that additional funding is, so not much of it can be used for ongoing expenses like salary increases.

Next year, we who represent the Eastern Panhandle in the Legislature are going to do our best to make these increases permanent. In addition, we need a formalized funding formula that we agree is fair, to make sure that in a few years some school or another is not falling by the wayside. And I think a fair funding formula should take into consideration how well each institution performs its assigned responsibilities to educate the people of our state.