February 22, 2012

College presidents ask Manchin for less regulation, more money | Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As part of his weeklong tour of the state, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., met with university presidents in Charleston on Wednesday to brainstorm big fixes to the state's higher education system -- and to deliver some bad news from Washington.

"With tax dollars scarce and with the pressures on our budget and economy, there is going to be less [money for education]," Manchin said at a roundtable discussion with education leaders on Tuesday. "There's going to be more pressure on you to do more with less. We've got to find our mojo."

The university presidents had one resounding message for Manchin: Congress, too, could do more for higher education by regulating less.

Paul Hill, interim chancellor of the Higher Education Policy Commission, said universities face a growing headache in applying for federal and state grant programs and completing required reports for accrediting bodies.

"I don't think anyone would say that we have to do away with high standards, but simply the requirements to meet those standards for reporting, that tends to be hours long and could be streamlined," said Hill.

University presidents also expressed concerns about a belt-tightening atmosphere in Washington that could threaten to derail programs like federal student aid.

"We know that the federal Pell Grant is under discussion in Congress and we're looking at ways to ensure that Pell Grant is available, but perhaps in a different way," said Marshall University president Stephen J. Kopp.

Congress reached a funding agreement in December to hold the maximum Pell Grant payout at $5,500 for the most financially strapped students, but tightened the eligibility requirements for students eligible to bridge a billion-dollar gap in the federal grant program.

Manchin also heard a repeated drumbeat about dealing with the biggest educational problems in the state: Low high school graduation rates, high college dropout rates, and new problems with college affordability.

West Virginia ranks among the bottom in the nation for both its college-going rates and college completion numbers.

According to the Higher Education Policy Commission, only 59 percent of West Virginia high school graduates attended college in 2010. That's below the national average of almost 64 percent.

Of those who attend college, fewer than half of the students who enter a four-year college complete their degrees in six years. The statewide college graduation rate for 2010 -- which measures how many students entering four-year colleges in 2004 completed their degree by 2010 -- was 48.5 percent, according to the HEPC. Nationally, the rate is 57.3 percent.

"Every time I ended a meeting with businesses, they asked me if I could guarantee that the state has the workforce needed to sustain business to get a return on investment," said Manchin. "Having a skilled workforce is key to getting businesses to come here and create jobs."

Job creation and workforce preparedness were the cornerstones of Manchin's educational discussion on Wednesday. He and university leaders agreed that the dialogue about college needs to shift to, "What can an education do for me?"

Manchin cited a figure by the College Board that says the typical bachelor's degree recipient could expect to earn $1.4 million (66 percent) more during a 40-year working life than the typical high school graduate earns over the same period.

In the upcoming weeks, the HEPC will organize the recommendations from the college presidents and provide a detailed priority list of educational changes for Manchin.

Kopp called the meeting with Manchin productive, and said colleges must wake up to the realities of declining federal revenue and increased demands for quality results.

"This comes back to innovation," said Kopp. "We're not going to see an environment where additional financial investment is going to happen anytime soon. We're going to have to meet national goals for improving the educational attainment level of the workforce in a non resource-rich environment."

By:  Amy Julia Harris