The West Virginia Miracle Requires Higher-Education Reform

Legislators in the Mountain State have far more work to do.

[Editor’s note: The following article continues the Martin Center’s series on the status of higher-ed reform in states of interest to our readers. Please read our reports on Tennessee, Florida, and Arizona. And check this space regularly for updates on reform efforts in Oklahoma and elsewhere.]

West Virginia has no time to lose. Its 55-percent labor-force participation rate is better only than Mississippi’s. Life expectancy is under 73 years, again placing West Virginia in second-to-worst place among U.S. states. Median family income is also near the bottom, whatever family size we compare. Economic development is our best way out, and the surest path to that result is education reform.

It’s not a matter of sending more high schoolers to a four-year college program. While it’s true that completing college—indeed, having any college education regardless of completion—is positively correlated with higher income, artificially increasing access is not the answer. Graduation rates are too low for that.

While it’s true that completing college is correlated with higher income, artificially increasing access is not the answer.The American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s (ACTA’s) “What Will They Learn?” database shows why. The 13 institutions that ACTA reviewed have four-year graduation rates ranging from 17 percent up to flagship West Virginia University’s (WVU’s) 44 percent. The education-research firm College Factual’s data tend to diverge but are still grim. For example, College Factual reports WVU’s four-year graduation rate as 35 percent vs. ACTA’s 44.

Six-year graduation rates do not restore confidence: WVU’s rate is 58 percent. West Virginia State University’s is 34 percent. And West Virginia is not so different on this measure than other states, such as Louisiana. Huge numbers of students are not able to finish their degrees, but they end up with college debt anyway after years of being outside the full-time workforce, not having developed marketable skills, but having become disconnected from the communities and families they left in order to pursue their college hopes.

This must change. West Virginia substantially over-invests in our over-enrolled four-year public colleges, especially when compared to investments in our career-college system. In West Virginia, you can get a two-year degree to become a power-transmission installer from Pierpont Community and Technical College and be earning $89,000 two years after graduation with only $11,000 in college debt. Or you can get a fine-arts degree from WVU, earn $18,000 per year, and have $27,000 in debt. (These are the extremes, based on cohorts from 2015 and 2016, which are in the sweet spot between the 2008 financial crisis and the 2020 pandemic chaos.)

The budget that West Virginia’s legislature passed on March 9, 2024, shows $8.6 million for Pierpont (which has dramatically lost market share since 2008) and far north of $100 million for WVU and all its parts. Although funding roughly tracks enrollment, there is room to rebalance and get more students out into the workforce faster. What would it take, for example, to further boost Pierpont’s already increasing two-year completion rate?

Legislators and the state’s regulator, the Higher Education Policy Commission (HEPC), should consider whether it has been a mistake to put so many pre-professional degree students in four-year programs with poor financial outcomes, rather than in two-year programs with apprenticeships. Here, they should consider low-return professions such as social work, journalism, and fine arts. (See also some other bold but politically challenging ideas I have published at The Federalist for state legislators anywhere.)

Legislators should consider whether it has been a mistake to put so many students in four-year programs with poor financial outcomes. Meanwhile, WVU on its own has admirably cut about 30 academic programs after having cut more than 500 staff positions, saving tens of millions of dollars per year through right-sizing. The state’s population has stabilized after many years of losses, but college enrollments in West Virginia continue to languish or fall. Although some colleges have grown to achieve “university” status, Alderson Broaddus University closed in 2023.

Some university officials have said that HEPC and its community-college board should be abolished because they interfere with market forces. As in other states, the state regulator inevitably must take a socialistic approach to government planning of the economy, deciding whether a new academic program may be allowed to open in a particular community. If a college wants to open a new branch campus, but that plan interferes with another college’s turf, the board can prohibit such an entrepreneurial enterprise. At the least, HEPC’s powers should be significantly curtailed.

Beyond these large-scale reforms, there are the usual ideas of higher-education reformers. West Virginia draws its faculty and administrators from a nationwide (if not worldwide) pool, so its “red state” status does not mean much for intellectual diversity on campus. Even so, “campus carry” of firearms is coming in July 2024.

But WVU pays its vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) more than $234,000 per year, as reported by The College Fix. In 2023 and 2024, one delegate proposed a bill to ban racial discrimination in admissions, ban mandatory diversity statements for applicants, and abolish DEI offices and remove their officers. The bill tracks with the Manhattan Institute’s model language, which legislators in other states have used, as well. Some states have successfully enacted such policies.

Legislators also have improved apprenticeship and dual-enrollment opportunities this year. Last year, the legislature passed a law requiring HEPC to reform its policies so that any college could choose any recognized accreditor, thus introducing competition that makes it easier for colleges to innovate.

As for free speech, a report from the Cardinal Institute and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) shows that every four-year college and university in West Virginia must improve its policies. (I am the main author of some of the reports mentioned in this piece.) No college or university in the state has adopted the Chicago Principles for free speech, the Kalven Committee Report on institutional neutrality, or the Shils Report’s principles of academic freedom. This policy “trifecta” is low-hanging fruit for presidents and trustees.

West Virginia University ranked 195th of 248 colleges for student tolerance of speakers with controversial ideas.More important than words on websites, however, are campus cultures for open inquiry. FIRE’s most recent national report on free-speech culture shows that students at WVU (the only college in the state surveyed) perceive strong support for free speech by the administration, resulting in a ranking of 24th out of 248 colleges. But WVU students themselves are among the least tolerant. WVU ranked number 195 for student tolerance of speakers with controversial ideas.

Many more good ideas for trustees are available on ACTA’s “Gold Standard” list. State legislators can look to the National Association of Scholars, and both legislators and trustees should consult the Martin Center’s “Blueprints for Reform.” In some cases, the same reforms that are available to college presidents are also available to trustees, the state regulator, the governor by executive order, and legislators. But it should be noted that WVU and Marshall University have earned a degree of autonomy from state regulation, and it is worth considering how to incentivize public and private universities to act on their own to meet metrics considered valuable by policymakers, such as graduation rates and other student outcomes.

What else should conservatives be for, rather than against? Three elements of a core liberal-arts curriculum would substantially improve West Virginia: economic education, civic education, and a classical education of deep conversation about what Matthew Arnold in 1869 called “the best which has been thought and said in the world.” As for economic education, WVU recently launched the Kendrick Center for an Ethical Economy, which does more than work at the college level: It educates high-school teachers to become stronger teachers of economics and offers dual-enrollment economics education to high-school students. Civics and “great books/great ideas” courses, for their part, need much stronger representation among college requirements.

West Virginia, with its super-supermajority of putatively Republican legislators, should be doing much more to reform higher education. But neither the Senate nor the House of Delegates has a higher-education subcommittee, as some other states do. And my observation of the House Education Committee is of a body with comparatively little experience or interest in higher education in comparison to K-12 education, never mind that a number of members have little energy for reform. It seems that the Senate is in a similar situation. To get the most important reform bills not just introduced but through the committees, education-committee membership should become better populated with reformers and more resistant to university lobbying. Legislative caucuses should feature more vocal calls for reform.

West Virginia’s economy and population are on the verge of recovery, despite the unfortunate figures listed above. K-12 educational freedom is underway through charter schools and the Hope Scholarship (education savings accounts), with thousands of families taking part. Now it’s time to work on higher education in order to help achieve what the Cardinal Institute calls the West Virginia miracle.

Adam Kissel is senior fellow at the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy.