CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's public higher education oversight body will, for the first time, have authority to regulate and shut down struggling private and for-profit colleges in the state if the Legislature approves a new rule change in the coming months.
The rule, which is up for public comment this month, revamps the way the state's Higher Education Policy Commission interacts with private colleges and will usher in an era of increased accountability, said Kathy Butler, vice chancellor for academic affairs at the HEPC.
"[The HEPC] has always had the authority to monitor the public universities, but not the privates," said Butler. "There wasn't any ongoing monitoring and quality assurance for consumers when it came to private schools."
The new policy, which would kick in by November 2013, gives the HEPC power to demand data on student retention rates, transfer information, licensure pass rates and loan default rates from every private college operating in West Virginia. The more than 70 out-of-state colleges from Oregon to Connecticut that offer online programs to West Virginia students also must receive annual HEPC authorization to operate here.
If the HEPC decides the institution isn't meeting performance benchmarks, it can shut down programs and even withdraw an institution's accreditation.
Policymakers say the increased oversight of all colleges will protect consumers from money-hungry diploma mills.
Critics, however, argue that the rule is an invasive power-grab that unfairly regulates private institutions.
"A lot of the reporting is what we do now, so that won't be a big change," said Ed Welch, president of the University of Charleston, a private not-for-profit school based in Charleston. "But if the HEPC decided to launch an investigation, it's going to be very onerous and time consuming and invasive for a private institution to have to share this with a public body. It's regretful that the state feels it's necessary to do this to everyone when they're only concerned about a few bad apples."
State senators passed a bill in 2011 granting the HEPC broadened regulatory powers as the national dialogue swirled around the lack of oversight of for-profit institutions and fly-by-night colleges.
Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, was one sponsor of the legislation.
"We didn't want for-profit colleges coming into the state and making claims that couldn't be verified," Wells said. "At this point, the commission does have the ability to shut a place down and say they're going to revoke an institution's authority to grant degrees if they're not performing. This bill gave them a lot more strength to stop these practices."
There are 10 regionally accredited private, not-for-profit colleges and universities and four accredited for-profit institutions in West Virginia.
The second aim of the legislation was to hold colleges that specifically target military personnel accountable -- particularly for-profit colleges, Wells said.
Last year, the West Virginia National Guard paid more than $245,000 in tuition assistance to for-profit institutions in the state and more than $240,000 to private institutions. Nearly 125 of the more than 1,300 soldiers and airmen in tuition-assistance programs in West Virginia are enrolled at for-profit institutions and 77 are enrolled at private schools, said Lt. Col. David Lester, spokesman for the West Virginia National Guard.
Butler said the rule change also would grant the HEPC power to deal with colleges facing serious accreditation and retention problems that formerly were off limits to the HEPC.
Mountain State University, a not-for-profit based in Beckley, for instance, has been wracked with accreditation problems for years that now threaten to shutter the school completely.