Chancellor Hill: College affordability is a necessity – let’s make it a priority

Nearly 50 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the first Higher Education Act, an unprecedented step that invested an increased level of federal dollars in colleges and universities and provided financial assistance for students pursuing higher education. The objective was to expand opportunities for students, inspire their minds and imaginations – and give them a running start toward a bright future.

This was a touchstone moment for higher education in our country. It set the standard that if we invest strongly in postsecondary education, then we’re investing in people – in their futures and the strength of our entire economy.

Earlier this week, the Higher Education Policy Commission approved, as is required by state statute, in-state undergraduate tuition and fee increases for the upcoming academic year for public four-year institutions whose increases are above 5 percent.

This wasn’t a decision that came lightly to these campuses or to the Commission. As the state faces another year of tough budget decisions, higher education has been impacted in very real ways.

Our schools are facing a 2.6 percent reduction in state support for fiscal year 2015. And at the same time, their costs continue to increase, there is a declining population of high school-age students in our state, competition from less traditional schools is on the rise, and students, parents and stakeholders have heightened expectations for the services institutions provide.

In talking with our campuses, we know they are making every effort to save costs elsewhere – like cutting back on programs that are underused. They aren’t resting solely on tuition revenues. Their response to today’s budgetary realities has to be – and is – multifaceted.

But over the long haul, shifting the burden to students and their families – whose college costs beyond just tuition also are increasing – simply is not the answer. We are thankful that state financial aid programs have been safeguarded from recent budget cuts. But as financial trials continue to hit home, our response has to be equal parts nimble and smart – because we could run the dangerous risk of pricing students out of higher education.

Financial challenges hit other states hard before they struck West Virginia. In recent years, we were fortunate to be investing in higher education while other states were cutting. We invested $50 million in the Research Trust Fund for our research institutions to match private donations dollar-for-dollar. We invested $2 million to support, our free college planning website that has seen more than 78,000 college applications.

As a result of these and many efforts, over the past five years degrees awarded at our institutions increased by 7.6 percent, STEM degrees and certificates increased by 12.1 percent, and the percentage of graduates from public institutions entering the state workforce has steadily increased.

This progress must continue. There was a light at the end of the tunnel for other states that have seen trying financial times, and state officials believe there’s a light at the end of our tunnel as well.

As we look to the future, we know that investing in higher education for the long term is critical – and new ideas should be on the table.

Currently, there is a proposal under review to create a federal matching program to support public higher education. With an eye on mitigating tuition increases and making college more affordable, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities is recommending the use of existing federal resources to create a new matching grant program that leverages federal funds to support states in their efforts to invest in public higher education.

Ideas like this should be considered earnestly in West Virginia. According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, by 2018 West Virginia needs to produce an additional 20,000 college degrees just to sustain our current economy. And by 2020, 51 percent of West Virginia jobs will require an associate’s degree or higher. Currently, only 27 percent of West Virginians fall in that category.

Even with current tuition increases, a college education in West Virginia is still 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.

We need to keep it that way, for the success of our students and the health of our economy – the very things a visionary act in 1965 set out to secure.

They are no less important today.

This commentary appeared in the June 20, 2014 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.