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WVU, Marshall announce initiative to keep college grads in state; Marshall’s Brad Smith talks academic transformation

MORGANTOWN — Leaders of WVU and Marshall University teamed Monday to introduce a new initiative designed to keep West Virginia college graduates working and prospering here in the Mountain State.

And, as West Virginia University struggles through its Academic Transformation process, Marshall President Brad Smith talked about the nationwide need for higher education transformation and what Marshall is doing to meet the challenges.

The occasion was the annual West Virginia Chamber of Commerce Conference, held at the Greenbrier this week. This year’s event is titled “Creating Connections, Building the Future.”

The new initiative at the universities is called First Ascent and is built on the foundation of Ascend WV, said Danny Twilley, WVU’s assistant vice president of economic, community and asset development for the Brad and Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative, which is tied to Ascend WV.

Ascend WV is a program designed to bring remote workers to the state. Twilley said they’ve received more than 33,000 applications for it from all 50 states and more than 80 countries and will have invited more than 200 applicants to West Virginia by year’s end. Of those who’ve come, 46% have bought homes and settled down here.

But there remains the question about state natives who’ve graduated from West Virginia colleges and universities, he said. “We know that if the talent is here the businesses will be here.”

First Ascent provides multiple pathways for 1,000 WVU and Marshall graduates to stay here and work remotely, work a hybrid format, or start or expand a business, he said. They can live in one of six locations: the five Ascend WV locales — greater Morgantown, Greenbrier Valley, the Eastern Panhandle, greater Elkins or the New River Gorge — or in the Huntington area close to Marshall.

The program, he said, aligns with the values of the up-and-coming generation and is built around community, purpose, serving and enjoying the state’s natural outdoor resources. It offers success coaching, mentorship, networking, an outdoor recreation package, co-working spaces, organized social activities and support for those who want to start or scale a business.

The program’s slogan, he said, is “Work anywhere. Choose home.” It’s estimated 1,000 participants could have a $317 million economic impact and create 941 new jobs.

WVU President Gordon Gee told the audience the state has a history of exporting coal, oil, gas — and talent. “We have to make sure that now what we do is keep our talent here.”

Smith talked about the “flywheel effect,” where the more people who participate in a program or join a network the more value they create for each person and bring in more people. “I think that this is going to create an amazing flywheel for the state just like Ascend has already.”

WVU said in a separate press release that supporting entities include WVU Career Services, the John Chambers College of Business and Economics Center for Career Development and the Marshall Office of Career Education.

Seed funding for the First Ascent pilot program originated from WVU Provost Maryanne Reed’s Innovation Summit. A subsequent award was provided by the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Build Back Better Regional Challenge Grant to Coalfield Development and WVU, and will fund the First Ascent program.

Higher education transformation

Smith addressed transformation in a segment called Higher Education Fueling West Virginia’s Economy.

“We prepare the next generation of talent for the things that are going to be important in society” — what’s most in demand, he said. “We’re dreamers and doers.”

Marshall, WVU and state government, he said, have collaboratively chosen where to be distinctive in the national economy by focusing on big unsolved problems using West Virginia’s demonstrated excellence in cybersecurity, healthcare, advanced manufacturing, all-of-the-above energy, aviation and entrepreneurship.

Across the entire higher education system, all are playing a different instrument but show up as an orchestra playing one piece of music, he said.

Higher education across the nation, Smith said, is facing three challenges: demographics, disruption and doubt. Demographics: the nation is facing a 2025 enrollment cliff, with 15% fewer high school graduates, (21% in West Virginia); and fewer seeking college as a necessary path, 12% fewer nationally, 18% in West Virginia.

Disruption, he said, means higher education has to transform. “We have to reinvent ourselves just like we do in companies.”

Marshall has a motto, he said: Marshall for All, Marshall Forever. The university in Huntington faces a $28 million structural deficit and its plan to turn things around is called “Save to Serve.” It involves saving $14.5 million in procurement and growing in areas they’re not investing enough in, in order to be profitable by 2027.

“We have to believe that we can once again re-imagine ourselves,” he said. In 10 years, Marshall wants to have 100% of graduates placed in their career of choice, with no debt; increase research grants and contracts; triple business startups; and increase their return on state investment from $14 for every $1 spent to $30.

Already, he noted, Marshall has reversed its enrollment decline: for the first time in 13 years, as of Tuesday enrollment was up 5.1%.


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