CHARLESTON — West Virginia’s higher education chancellor said she plans to provide college funding formulas to state lawmakers in time for January’s regular legislative session.
Legislators could then use — or ignore — the formulas when deciding annually how much to give colleges and universities. There would be one formula for community colleges, and one for four-year schools.
Currently, state funding to colleges isn’t based on any written metrics. A formula could increase or decrease colleges’ future funding according to what percentage of their students earn degrees, how much they invest in research, how well they serve low-income students, and other factors.
“I know funding formulas are about the most boring thing to talk about on the face of the planet and often can get tensions heated, but in actuality we’ve had really great conversations,” Higher Education Chancellor Sarah Tucker said at a meeting last week. Tucker is the top administrator for the sister state agencies that oversee community and four-year colleges.
Drew Payne, board chairman for the agency overseeing four-year schools and a former West Virginia University Board of Governors member, thanked another state higher education official, Matt Turner, “for working over all these years on getting the funding formula done finally, and with everybody agreeing on it.”
“And I know that’s been a herculean task,” Payne added.
But Tucker said her staff hasn’t yet run any proposed formulas to show exactly how they would impact colleges’ bottom lines. She did share a ”framework” with lawmakers.
The plan, Tucker wrote to legislators, includes colleges negotiating with her agencies on “mission-specific weights [from a predetermined range] that will determine the extent to which each metric will contribute to the institution’s overall score.”
“For example, Marshall University, West Virginia University and West Virginia State University might choose to place a greater emphasis on research than other institutions because of their research mission,” she wrote. “As is done in Tennessee, these selections would be re-evaluated every five years at which point the institutions could alter their weighting percentages.”
“The presidents have been wonderful working on this,” Tucker told lawmakers Monday. “I mean, they have been incredibly collaborative.”
The so-far quiet development of the new formula, including conversations among college presidents outside of public meetings, contrasts with 2018. That year’s funding formula dispute was coupled with — and perhaps led to the founding of — Gov. Jim Justice’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Four-Year Higher Education.
That panel’s sometimes heated public meetings ceased without it ever issuing a final report — and without a formula ever being agreed to.
WVU President Gordon Gee persuaded Justice behind the scenes to create the Blue Ribbon panel, though Gee said he wasn’t motivated by his opposition to the Higher Education Policy Commission’s 2018 formula work.
The Higher Education Policy Commission, which oversees four-year colleges, is one of the sister agencies that Tucker leads.
WVU could have lost money under a formula the Higher Education Policy Commission’s staff had proposed in 2018. And the Blue Ribbon panel, which Justice appointed Gee to co-lead, focused on replacing or changing the Higher Education Policy Commission into primarily a service agency with less oversight.
But the Blue Ribbon panel didn’t release final recommendations on that, either.
The Legislature didn’t completely neuter the Higher Education Policy Commission, though it has since lessened that agency’s role somewhat — part of a trend of chipping away that stretches back years.
For the rejuvenated funding formula conversation, Tucker said “we used an outside organization called HCM Strategists to help us look at funding models across the country. So what do they look like, what are indices of good models, bad models? And they sort of rank models.”
She said her staff discussed Tennessee’s model with West Virginia college presidents in early 2020, and her staff planned a retreat for presidents to discuss further.
“When COVID hit that sort of derailed that whole process,” Tucker said.
But the conversation has resumed and is now public. And WVU hasn’t publicly criticized the work.
“We are thankful for the job Chancellor Tucker has done in developing a transparent process of engagement and development of a funding model,” WVU Vice President for Strategic Initiatives Rob Alsop said in an email. “We are pleased with the progress that has been made and look forward to continued participation in developing an appropriate funding model for four-year higher education in West Virginia.”
The presidents met last month, Tucker said, to see if there was any agreement on what the formula should be. She said there was “a lot of agreement.”