Could Changes to West Virginia Higher Ed Jeopardize West Va. State, Bluefield State?

Officials in West Virginia are debating the future of its public system of higher education, and it’s not clear which side of the debate best positions West Virginia State University and Bluefield State College for long-term success.

In one corner, West Virginia University President Gordon Gee seems to be in concert with state lawmakers on a plan to dismantle the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission (HEPC), the body which provides oversight of the state’s public colleges and universities in operations, funding and academic development.

Fighting out of other corner are advocates of the commission who say that abolishing HEPC would make colleges outside of WVU and Marshall University vulnerable in the fight for scant public resources and prone to mission creep and development by the state’s largest institutions.

If HEPC goes away, more control is given to the governing boards of each institution. If HEPC remains, all schools regardless of size and mission are subject to statewide initiatives for performance-based funding, access for low-income students, and other metrics of usefulness to West Virginia.

So what does it mean for schools like West Virginia State and Bluefield State, two of the nation’s most diverse historically black colleges playing significant roles in enrolling many of the state’s low-income students entering with varying degrees of college preparedness? While larger schools in the state may just be catching up to the benefit of educating minorities and the poor, these two institutions have perfected the art of creating opportunity in fields like education, criminal justice, nursing, and agriculture.

Does HEPC or the respective boards of both schools give these two HBCUs their best chances to grow enrollment and programs? Both WVSU and BSC have survived under HEPC oversight; what is the likelihood that they will thrive under the same?

Will the same governor who is in concert with Gee and WVU to revamp the state’s entire system of higher ed management appoint board members at WVSU and BSC who will advance the agenda of the schools, or will they covertly advance the agenda of WVU and Marshall?

We’ve seen this movie before. Tennessee gave more control of some public institutions to their independent boards. Tennessee State University is now suffering from enrollment losses created in large part by community college access programs and performance-based funding models designed to punish the HBCU mission.

HBCUs in Georgia report to a system board, and are facing very real threats stemming from school consolidations and controversial leadership appointments. Mississippi HBCUs are confronted with the same stark reality.

All systems watch and copycat each other’s efforts to shrink their higher ed spending and to boost their large state research institutions. Moves like these imperil black colleges, but often are implemented without students, alumni and stakeholders knowing the potential for bad outcomes, and are left to wonder why enrollment so suddenly and drastically falls and leaves schools struggling for revenue.

Regardless of the outcome of the debate in West Virginia, is a bad result waiting for two of the state’s most important institutions?

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