Chancellor Hill: Marking 50 years of the Higher Education Act

On November 8, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Higher Education Act, unparalleled federal legislation that strengthened investments in public colleges and universities and provided dedicated support to students pursuing higher education.

On that day 50 years ago, he said, “This will swing open a new door for the young people of America…the most important door that will ever open – the door to education.”

This was a touchstone moment for higher education in our country. It made postsecondary education a national priority and placed it within the reach of more lower- and middle-income Americans. And it avowed what public higher education is meant to accomplish – an educated citizenry and, as a result, a stronger economy.

West Virginia has benefitted greatly from opportunities made possible by the Higher Education Act – including federal Pell grants and low-interest loans. And in many ways, our state itself has risen to the standards this historic charter set forth.

We have established a strong network of public colleges and universities that offer vast degree opportunities at an affordable cost. Even with recent state budget challenges, comparisons show that a college education in West Virginia remains among the most affordable in the nation.

We have created West Virginia’s merit-based PROMISE Scholarship; need-based Higher Education Grant; Engineering, Science and Technology Scholarship; Underwood-Smith Teacher Scholarship; and Higher Education Adult Part-Time Student Grant. Combined, West Virginia’s financial aid programs, which are administered and promoted to students across the state through the Higher Education Policy Commission, provided $92.3 million to students this year.

Also through the Policy Commission, we have funneled nearly $90 million in federal grants over the past seven years alone to our state for programs like GEAR UP, which was created through amendments made in 1998 to the Higher Education Act and today provides college guidance to students in 10 West Virginia counties; the College Foundation of West Virginia, our state’s free college- and career-planning website and outreach initiative; and West Virginia EPSCoR, which supports scientific research and STEM education and careers.

As a result of these efforts and numerous more, today we are producing a greater number of degrees than ever before – with 13,316 bachelor’s degrees earned across West Virginia public four-year higher education system last year. And we know that students who receive state support end up working in West Virginia at higher rates than overall graduates. In fact, one study 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.

As we celebrate our progress, we also recognize that West Virginia needs far more of it.

By 2020, 51 percent of jobs in our state will require an associate degree or higher, but only 27 percent of West Virginians currently fall in that category. We also know that fewer than half of students seeking a bachelor’s degree in West Virginia complete college within six years. At the same time, many students don’t complete at all – leaving college with a precarious combination of the weight of student loan debt and the impediment of no degree.

That is why the Policy Commission, together with our colleges and universities, is working to open the doors to higher education even wider for our students, help them succeed by earning their degrees – and affirm West Virginia as a state full of ideas and solutions, leaders and job creators, and vibrant, forward-looking communities.

Fifty years ago, with a pen stroke, President Johnson envisioned those very things for our country. Today, I hope we can continue fulfilling that vision by standing steadfast around a confident belief in the power of public higher education as a sustained source of hope and growth for West Virginia.

This commentary appeared in the October 6, 2015 edition of The State Journal.