With the decision this past week to bump tuition at West Virginia University by 5.7 percent for the coming school year at a time when the Legislature is sending more money to Morgantown via a 5 percent pay raise for all state employees, it’s time to sit down and figure out just how much higher education we can afford while making sure we keep doors wide open to as many Mountain State kids as possible.
Truly, education is a critical ignition in a collective effort to fire the engines of an economic recovery. But if we keep putting access to post secondary education further beyond the financial reach of prospective students and their families, then our ship of state will remain mired in the bog of underperformance.
Annual tuition hikes at state universities and colleges cannot go on unabated especially in an economy that is still in search of its footing – and yet that is exactly what we have been witnessing for the last decade at our state’s flagship university.
Plus, the credibility of the bean counters, administrators and the Board of Governors is at risk, too. We have heard their pleas for additional state funding each and every year, but as former delegate John O’Neal of Beckley wrote on this very page nearly a year ago, “... most universities have raised tuition every single year. They raise tuition when state funding increases. They raise tuition when state funding is flat. They raise tuition when state funding is reduced. ... schools have been raising tuition significantly every year, regardless of what the state budget looks like.”
And he’s right.
WVU’s Board of Governors approved the latest tuition hike on Friday, but the rising cost of education didn’t begin just this year. Or last.
Last year, WVU students saw a 5 percent tuition increase after a 5 percent jump the year before. In school year 2015-16 – the Petri dish of what O’Neal was talking about – WVU raised tuition by 10 percent despite a much smaller 1.4 percent reduction in state support.
University administrators and Board of Governor members can recite one reason after another why tuition needs to be bumped, chief among them attracting high-end faculty members and keeping them. For students and parents working the numbers at the kitchen table, the concern is a little less about who is teaching a class than it is about how to pay an additional $480 at WVU, bringing the annual tuition bill to $8,856 per year. That cost was $4,722 in 2007, according to the latest West Virginia Higher Education Report Card from the state Higher Education Policy Commission.
Has the value of instruction at WVU risen as much?
And those numbers are just for tuition. The total cost this past school year, according to calculations by collegedata.com, was $22,472 at WVU, including $10,576 for room and board, $900 for books and supplies and $2,620 for “other” expenses.
That’s a load – and yet it is in keeping with what is happening in higher education around the country.
The Legislature has to figure out how to more fully invest in its state colleges and universities. And college administrators need to figure out how to live with less, cutting entire programs if necessary. WVU is not Harvard. Or Princeton. Or any other Ivy League school. Nor should that be the vision.
WVU cannot be all things to all students. But it can be better than No. 187 – the U.S. News and World Report ranking of WVU among all national universities – without annual 5 percent tuition increases and with greater support from the state.
With a total cost at WVU approaching $100,000 for a four-year degree and with a need to educate more of our state’s students, West Virginia leaders in education and government need to put pencil to paper and figure this one out.