Editorials, Opinion

Legislature gets ‘F’ in state funding for higher education

The $45 million shortfall West Virginia University faces is still some of the biggest news around town. In the past week, we’ve discussed the issue in terms of what the university could have done and should do (or not do) in the future. But there are multiple factors at play, which is why, today, we’re looking at how the West Virginia Legislature contributed to the crisis.

According to the think tank West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, “if West Virginia lawmakers had simply kept higher education funding at the same levels as a decade ago, West Virginia University would have an estimated additional $37.6 million in state funding for FY 2024 ….”

We’re not going to try to replicate their math. But we can easily see from available data that West Virginia has been short-changing higher education as a whole over the last couple decades. Not only has the Legislature decreased its funding support for public institutions of higher education, but what it does give is significantly lower than the national average.

The State Higher Education Finance report tracks public college/university funding trends for individual states and the nation as a whole, using data spanning 1980 to 2022. And according to the SHEF report, “General operating appropriations in West Virginia have decreased 29.6% per FTE [full-time equivalent enrollment]” in the last 20 years and there’s been an overall 12.7% decrease in state support for public colleges and universities since 1980.

Another interesting statistic: In 1980, nationally, on average, tuition accounted for 21% of public universities’ revenue; in West Virginia, it was 19%. By 2022, the national average for tuition-as-revenue had jumped to 42%. However, in West Virginia in 2022, tuition accounted for a whopping 56% of universities’ revenue, indicating our state has done an even poorer job of supporting higher education than the rest of the nation.

Also, strangely enough, two-year colleges receive almost twice as much from the state in education appropriations as four-year colleges. The difference is somewhat made up — though not completely — by research, agriculture and medical (RAM) funding to four-year colleges.

That was a lot of numbers, and we don’t blame you if your eyes glazed over a little.

So here’s the long story short: The West Virginia Legislature has been short-changing not just WVU, but all the state’s public universities and colleges for the last couple decades. There have been cuts to higher education nationwide, but West Virginia has hacked away at schools’ funding in a particularly brutal way, putting our institutions at a disadvantage compared to similar schools in other states.

This trend is reflected in West Virginia’s economy: The state has prioritized businesses that don’t require an educated workforce, such as fossil fuels, manufacturing and distribution; in turn, fewer West Virginians are pursuing college degrees and the ones who do, don’t stay. This has made the state less attractive to science, technology and engineering-based industries that, arguably, have more staying power.

So in the end, it’s not just WVU and public higher education that has been damaged by the Legislature’s refusal to consistently fund schools — it’s the entire state and its people.