The path to prosperity
I am not one to look in the rearview mirror. I believe in moving forward. However, there are times when one must stop and reassess a situation. And I feel I must do that as it pertains to the conversation of the state funding of higher education.
First, I want to make it clear that West Virginia University is grateful to our legislative leaders for their efforts this past session. The university has new flexibility that will enable us to hire the best workforce, reward staff based on merit and create policies that will guide this university into a new day. I am thankful for our legislative partners who helped move those initiatives forward.
With that being said, I do feel it necessary to revisit the conversation surrounding the state budget and its funding of higher education. There has been much rhetoric — from all sides of the table — that has left the public with muddied facts. As president of West Virginia University, I believe it is my responsibility to share the realities we face every day as an institution of higher learning.
Our challenges are not unique. Though we may be situated in a small state with budget woes, other states with higher populations and more acreage are struggling with similar issues.
It is no wonder that news outlets across the nation are writing stories about the cost of college and questioning whether attending is of value. We, as leaders and as a people, have indicated by our votes that higher education is not worth the investment.
And that is where I must vehemently disagree. Higher education is, indeed, the path to prosperity. I have stated many times that the only way to create jobs, to develop new economic opportunities and make groundbreaking discoveries is through strong partnerships with universities.
West Virginia University and the WVU Hospital System is the largest employer in our state — and the single best economic driver. For every dollar the state invests in West Virginia University, the state receives a $10 return to the economy. Add in the academic medical center and that return on investment rises to $20.
That is why our message consistently has been — and will continue to be — investing in higher education is the one path that will lead us to success. And success for our state means that all 1.8 million West Virginians have the opportunity to attain the education they desire so they can lead the life to which they have always aspired.
But providing a high-quality education to our people means having the courage to make the investment. It has been written that the university is only taking a 1 percent reduction and that we can easily tighten our belts. It has also been written that by raising our tuition by 5 percent, we have more than covered the loss in state revenue. That is simply not true.
Those conclusions ignore two key facts: The university receives a significant amount of revenues that are for restricted purposes and the university (like any other business) is subject to rising costs for things such as utilities, goods and services, and recruiting and retaining a world-class workforce (particularly our faculty). Anyone concluding that recent tuition increases have been able to offset the reduction in state appropriations is basing such a statement on the incorrect assumption that all of the university’s expenses have remained the same over the past several years. They have not.
West Virginia University’s budget — which includes the academic component of the Health Sciences schools — is nearly $1 billion. Over the past four years, the university has seen a reduction of nearly $40 million to its base funding. State appropriations only account for around 17 percent of the university’s total budget. That means the university is extremely entrepreneurial. For every 17 cents the state provides, we generate 83 cents for our own budget. So when it is said that we are only losing 1 percent of our budget, it is not a reduction from the $1 billion total university budget. It is an $8.7 million reduction of our state funding — and that is a significant loss in revenue.
And while we are implementing every efficiency we can, driving efficiency alone is not enough to meet the revenue lost. An increase in tuition also will never cover the loss of state support — despite the analogies asserted by others. It is not a simple dollar-for-dollar exchange. Instead, the university will have to become even more entrepreneurial and seek further support from our donors to meet the priorities we have outlined under our three pillars of education, health care and prosperity.
And it is those three pillars that keep us moving forward — despite reduced resources. Our polar star is to be the best land-grant, flagship research institution for the people of West Virginia. We open our classrooms to educate those seeking a different path. We enter our laboratories to conduct research that will change lives. And we collaborate in every West Virginia county — all 55 — so that we can succeed together.
Now is the time to partner – to stand courageous together — and to make the necessary decisions that will help our state flourish instead of flounder. No matter what statements are made or social posts are tweeted, one fact remains clear: The time to invest in higher education is now.
E. Gordon Gee is president of West Virginia University