Here in West Virginia, we’re proud of a lot of things – especially our sense of community.
And all across our state, so many close-knit cities and towns are bolstered by college campuses that deepen our community pride.
We identify ourselves as Mountaineers and Mountain Lions. We cheer for the Big Blue, the Fighting Falcons and the Thundering Herd. We are Rams, Yellow Jackets, Catamounts and Golden Bears. We are Hilltoppers and Pioneers.
Above all else, we are West Virginians who are proud not only of our collegiate athletic teams – but of everything West Virginia’s public colleges and universities offer to the communities and state they serve.
Recently, one national research study ranked West Virginia in the top spot – tied with Maine and Montana – among states with the best colleges and universities. This is just one analysis, but we certainly have cause to celebrate.
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 state merit- and need-based financial aid.
And research shows that these investments are paying off. Students who receive state financial aid, like the PROMISE Scholarship, are more likely to stay in state for their careers. In fact, a study earlier this year found that 80 percent of PROMISE recipients who graduated in 2003-04, among the first students to receive the scholarship, were working in the state in 2012.
The number of low-income students enrolling in West Virginia colleges and universities has increased steadily since 2007. The number of science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees awarded has grown. And we are graduating more adult students than ever before.
As we reflect on our successes, we also recognize our very real challenges. At the top of the list: we must improve retention and graduation rates across West Virginia.
Among other benchmarks, we have set a bold goal to increase the number of degrees awarded by our institutions to 15,500 annually by 2018. Toward that end, the Higher Education Policy Commission is in the beginning stages of an initiative to encourage students to take a full course load – at least 15 credit hours per semester – so they can graduate on time.
We’re also working with the Community and Technical College System of West Virginia to ease the student credit transfer process, which we hope will increase completion rates. At the urging of Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, our institutions are working to align associate programs to be accepted and fully credited to related baccalaureate programs.
Through efforts like the College Foundation of West Virginia (CFWV.com), West Virginia’s free college- and career-planning website, and West Virginia GEAR UP, which helps students in high-need counties prepare for college, we’ve made terrific strides in increasing access to college for West Virginians.
And with students starting this fall semester donning their green and white or their gold and blue, proclaiming “Go State” or marveling at “Campus Beautiful,” we couldn’t be prouder of the progress we’ve all made together.
But as those students recommit to their futures with a new academic year ahead of them, just as we celebrate West Virginia being at the top of a good national list, we also must recommit to seeing them succeed.
This commentary appeared in the August 21, 2014 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.