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Capehart: New model for higher education needed

CHARLESTON — Robin Capehart, president of Bluefield State College, said lawmakers need to consider developing a new governance structure for West Virginia public colleges and universities that awards schools for meeting workforce needs.

Capehart gave his thoughts on funding formulas and the governance structure for four-year colleges and universities and two-year community and technical colleges during a meeting Sunday of the Joint Standing Committee on Education.

“What we want to do is we want to provide a better, more personal academic opportunity to the market, and let the market decide,” Capehart said. “I do believe that if there is a need, the market will fill it. I think it’ll either be more efficient brick-and-mortar institutions, or it could be online.”

Capehart proposed an idea for legislation for the next regular session in January, called the Access to Education Act. The bill would be modeled on an idea first proposed in 2018 by members of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Four-Year Higher Education to scrap the Higher Education Policy Commission.

Instead, Capehart said lawmakers should create an Office of Post-Secondary Education. As originally proposed, the Office of Post-Secondary Education would deregulate the state’s 10 public colleges and universities and give their boards of governors more power.

But Capehart said he would like to see lawmakers scrap laws that prevent colleges and universities from offering certain programs.

Instead, Capehart wants a level playing field where colleges and universities compete for program delivery and tax dollars.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we need a new model,” Capehart said. “We need a model that focuses on access to education, not power and protecting turf. We need a model that is based upon competition, not command-and-control through a bureaucracy. I think we need a system that allows colleges to innovate, create, and respond to the needs of students and their employers.”

State laws on the books limit the kinds of programs that colleges and universities can offer, requiring approval from the HEPC and the West Virginia Community and Technical College System. Only community and technical colleges can offer two-year programs unless a program has been grandfathered.

Other two-year and four-year schools can object to the HEPC or the WVCTCS to block another school from starting a new program, even if the school making the objection doesn’t already offer the program themselves. Bluefield State College has encountered this issue before when trying to create a surgical technology program in southern West Virginia, and when trying to offer an engineering technology program in the Northern Panhandle.

“It was not done out of malice or anything like that,” Capehart said. “It was really just people trying to protect their turf. And it was all done in accordance with state law.”

Changes made to those laws exempt West Virginia University, WVU Tech in Beckley, and Marshall University, allowing them to set up programs anywhere. Also, while other regional four-year colleges have to seek approval for new programs, two-year community and technical colleges offer academic programs similar to four-year schools while focusing less on workforce development.

According to HEPC total headcount enrollment for 2020 for the state’s community and technical colleges, of the 15,817 students enrolled, 13,538 were enrolled in academic degree programs while 2,392 were enrolled in workforce development programs. And with residents able to enroll universities across the country with online programs, such as Southern New Hampshire University, Liberty University and others, Capehart said duplication of programs is already happening.

“When you consider the close proximity there is between community colleges and the four-year colleges, I would say duplication already exists,” Capehart said. “The proliferation of programs anywhere, anytime, and any place already exists in West Virginia through hundreds of other online institutions that can go into anybody’s house anywhere across the state.”

The Higher Education Policy Commission is creating two performance-based funding formulas for distributing more than $400 million in tax dollars annually from the general revenue budget to the state’s 10 four-year colleges and universities and nine community and technical colleges based on Tennessee’s program.

Representatives of West Virginia University, Marshall University and the West Virginia Council of Presidents expressed support for the HEPC funding model during a legislative interim meeting last month. Only Capehart and Casey Sacks, acting president of BridgeValley Community and Technical College, pushed back on the plan.

Capehart said his Access to Education Act and effort to give smaller regional schools a better chance to compete.

“We have to compete because 70% of our budget comes from tuition and fees and grants and other sources,” Capehart said. “It’s extremely competitive out there. And in order for us to compete, we’ve got to have a level playing field, and we’ve got to have flexibility.”

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