Today at the State Capitol, colleges and universities from across West Virginia have come together to showcase the vast opportunities for a high-quality postsecondary education right here at home. From Shepherdstown to Huntington, Morgantown to Athens, and at multiple points in between, we have an array of affordable options for earning college degrees at public institutions right in our own back yards.
Together with these campuses, the Higher Education Policy Commission is tackling a new five-year master plan, Leading the Way: Access. Success. Impact., that builds on recent progress and sets forth bold aspirations for higher education – and a means to achieve them.
We are striving to uphold a higher education system that promises access to higher education for West Virginians, success through degree completion, and a lasting, positive impact on our state.
To accomplish this, we are working hand-in-hand with our public four-year institutions on a number of daring – but entirely achievable – goals for 2018.
First, we aim to increase access to postsecondary education for both traditional and nontraditional West Virginia students. Our goals are to increase overall enrollment, especially in specific student populations – including increasing first-time freshman enrollment to 12,750, increasing enrollment of low-income students to 22,000, and increasing the number of undergraduate adults enrolled to 11,500.
But our work doesn’t stop when students set foot on campus. We know college completion is one of the most pressing issues facing our state, as fewer than half of students who enroll in West Virginia’s four-year institutions earn their degree in six years. Also, research shows that West Virginia ranks 13th among 16 southern states in retaining students in their first year of college.
Our master plan aims to reduce the number of students dropping out of college by increasing the first-year retention rate of full-time, first-time freshmen to 80 percent, and increasing the first-year retention rate of low-income, first-time freshmen to 75 percent.
Once our students earn their degrees, West Virginia stands to benefit. Educated and skilled graduates underpin our economy, and they will move it forward.
With that vision in mind, our master plan has targeted increasing the number of degrees awarded annually at the undergraduate and graduate levels, including increasing the number of degrees awarded in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. We also are striving to advance research and development activities that contribute to our state’s economic growth.
In addition, we are working with campuses to address regional economic needs by developing and promoting pathways to the West Virginia workforce for students and recent graduates. College graduates go on to purchase homes, support local businesses, and give back to their communities. They contribute to our state in many ways, and it’s essential that our system plays a role in preparing current and future students to take on the social and economic challenges facing West Virginia.
Above all, Leading the Way imagines a primary role for public higher education in moving West Virginia toward a more diverse and robust economy that is competitive in a global, knowledge-based marketplace.
We know the stakes are high. One Georgetown University study found that West Virginia needs an additional 20,000 degree-holders by 2018 to meet projected workforce needs. So to move our economy ahead – and not just merely sustain it – we must set our aspirations high.
Fulfilling these goals will require extraordinary effort and collaboration, but the Commission and our campuses are prepared to rise to this compelling challenge – and solidify higher education as a means to success for West Virginians and an economic catalyst for our state.
For more information on West Virginia’s four-year higher education system and Leading the Way, visit www.wvhepc.edu.
This commentary appeared in the February 21, 2014 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.