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Editorial: Repeated higher ed cuts can harm state

Nov. 08, 2013 @ 12:13 AM

Forums conducted this week at various Marshall University facilities were aimed at looking for solutions to a vexing problem: How are West Virginia universities and colleges and the students they serve supposed to cope with potentially a second straight year of significant cuts in state aid?

As the discussions at these forums made clear, there are no easy answers and the prospects of avoiding further funding reductions don’t appear rosy. But those who will make the decisions regarding the level of state aid in the year ahead should look for ways to soften the blow.

During the current budget year, which ends June 30, state government’s funding for higher education declined 7.5 percent. Now, heading into the next budget year, the state’s higher education institutions have been asked to submit budgets reflecting a similar cut once more. If that reduction is carried out, the institutions stand to lose more than 14 percent of their state funding support compared with last year.

The reasons for the state’s conservative budgeting approach are evident. State revenues are dropping from a combination of lower corporate taxes, a sagging coal industry and declining lottery income. Meanwhile, higher education is just one of many issues that warrant attention from state leaders, including infrastructure needs, prison overcrowding, substance abuse solutions and health care.

But the long-term consequences of reducing support for colleges and universities cannot be ignored.

One of them is a growing financial burden on students. For example, after Marshall froze tuition rates for undergraduate, in-state students a few years ago because of a spurt in enrollment and pressure from then-Gov. Joe Manchin, annual tuition increases have been 6.9 percent, 4.99 percent and 4.8 percent. One result of that is many prospective students are finding college more unaffordable. That in turn can hurt enrollment. No doubt cost is one factor in a 2 percent decline in enrollment at Marshall this year. Declining enrollment coupled with less state aid only adds pressure to raise tuition rates more.

If students can’t afford to invest in higher education, not only are their prospects hurt but also the state’s ability to develop a better-skilled work force. That means existing companies may face difficulties finding the employees they need to prosper, but also dampens prospects for attracting new employers.

The forums this week explored various options for the state’s budget troubles. Among them is working harder to root out inefficiencies and waste so the state’s dollars go further. Other ideas included imposing new or higher taxes on commodities or transactions, as well as dipping into the state’s relatively healthy rainy day fund. But resorting to the rainy day fund is only a temporary help.

It’s obvious that no single answer exists for addressing the budget issues. But it would be wise for the state’s leaders to look seriously at all their options so that this worrisome trend of undercutting higher education can be put to a stop. The state’s future will be harmed if more and more of our young people can’t afford to gain competitive skills.

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