Hoppy Kercheval, Opinion

West Virginia University is right to rightsize

Vox published an article a few months ago entitled, “The Incredible Shrinking Future of College.” Author Kevin Carey detailed how the declining birthrate produced an “enrollment cliff” for many colleges.

Carey referenced economist Nathan Grawe’s Higher Education Demand Index showing that “Demand for regional four-year universities … will drop by at least 7.5% across New England, the mid-Atlantic, and Southern states other than Florida and Texas.”

Combine that with an increase in the number of students seeking online degrees, a tightening or reduction of government funding for state institutions, the improved job market for individuals without a four-year degree, and you have challenging times now and in the future for higher education.

Carey wrote, “But there is no arguing with demography. Colleges are about to experience something outside of living memory, and not all of them will make it through.”

West Virginia University is already at a tipping point.

The steady decline of enrollment along with increased costs for utilities, PEIA, payroll and supplies has created a $45 million shortfall. WVU has already cut more than 500 non-academic positions over the past several years, saving nearly $21 million, but now the school is facing even more difficult cuts in faculty and majors.

President Gordon Gee and his leadership team are holding fast to the reductions despite significant faculty opposition. Eight-hundred faculty members supported a “no-confidence” vote in Gee last week. The president said on Talkline Tuesday he remains confident that he is taking the appropriate steps to rightsize the university.

WVU is getting a lot of media coverage, and much of it is critical. However, I suspect many college presidents are watching the developments closely to see how they can successfully pivot to cope with enrollment declines.

Karen Gross, a former college president, is an advisor and higher education consultant. She wrote three years ago in support of rightsizing. “It’s something businesses have been doing for years. It takes realizing that enrollment is down for the foreseeable future and rethinking how an organization can be structured to meet current needs.”

Her first recommendation for institutions is to align faculty more closely with high-demand areas. “Rightsize by thinking about what the market demands now and two years from now — not ten years from now. A budget can be cut without cutting to the heart of the institution.”  

That is what WVU is trying to do.

None of this will assuage the anger and disappointment of a large segment of the WVU faculty. Frankly, it is to be expected that professors would speak out in support of sustaining, and even expanding, the school’s academic pursuits. The faculty are serious about the role of WVU as the state’s flagship university.

However, if WVU is going to escape an “incredible shrinking future” of higher ed and remain as an academic beacon for the state, rightsizing is not only advisable, it is inevitable.

Hoppy Kercheval is a MetroNews anchor and the longtime host of “Talkline.” Contact him at hoppy.kercheval@wvradio.com.