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Bucking national trend, W.Va. continues to cut higher ed funding

By David Gutman, Staff writer

While almost every state in the country slashed spending on higher education during the recent recession, West Virginia is one of the only states continuing to cut funding to its public colleges and universities, a new report shows.

From last fiscal year to this fiscal year, West Virginia cut more in state funding for higher education than any other state besides Wyoming, the report, from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank, shows.

After adjusting for inflation, West Virginia cut spending on higher education by 4.7 percent per student, or about $330 per student, the report found.

Only eight states cut funding for colleges and universities, while the rest began to reinstate some of the funding lost since the recession that began in 2008.

“States have cut higher education funding deeply since the start of the recession,” the report’s authors wrote. “To compensate for lost state funding, public colleges have both steeply increased tuition and pared back spending, often in ways that may compromise the quality of the education and jeopardize student outcomes.”

This is not the last year of funding cuts for West Virginia’s colleges. This year’s budget included cuts of 7.5 percent for most state agencies, including higher education. Next year’s budget will cut higher education by 3.75 percent, which amounts to about a $14 million cut. Projected future budgets for higher education, through 2019, are flat.

Hallie Mason, public policy director for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, said she had not yet reviewed the new report, but she pointed out that the legislature had agreed to the cuts and emphasized that next year’s cuts will be smaller.

Although it is now lagging behind national averages, West Virginia made it through much of the recession without cutting spending as drastically as most other states. From fiscal year 2008 through 2014 (fiscal years begin on July 1) per-student spending decreased by nearly $1,900 in West Virginia. However, spending on colleges decreased in almost every state, as tax revenues fell and college enrollments grew, so West Virginia’s decreases rank as only the 29th biggest nationally.

Jessica Tice, spokeswoman for the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, emphasized that point.

“For many years, while other states were cutting higher education, West Virginia was investing,” Tice wrote in an email. “In many ways West Virginia’s higher education system has been fortunate. We are very grateful that the FY 2015 budget safeguards financial aid, including the Promise Scholarship program, for our students.”

Every state except Alaska and North Dakota now spends less per student on higher education than they did before the recession, according to the report.

As the recession made jobs tougher to find, more people across the country enrolled in college. In West Virginia, enrollment jumped 25 percent from 2007 to 2008. So, even if funding levels remained stable, funding on a per-student basis would have fallen.

More recently, enrollment has slowed down. Nine of West Virginia’s 12 public four-year colleges had lower enrollment in 2013 than they did in 2009.

That’s coincided with rising tuitions. The report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that tuition in West Virginia has risen by more than 26 percent since 2008, or about $1,300.

The funding crunch is a result of lower-than-expected tax revenue throughout the recession and tax cuts that have been phased in since 2006.

Tax revenue in 2015 is expected to be about $425 million lower than it would have been without the tax cuts — the biggest of which are the elimination of the food tax and the business franchise tax — according to estimates from the state Department of Revenue.

“Looking ahead, we must invest in higher education for the long term. Right now, a college education in West Virginia is among the most affordable in the nation, the result of a combination of low tuition rates and strong offerings of merit- and need-based financial aid programs,” Tice wrote. “We need to keep it that way, for our student’s success and the health of our economy.”

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.


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