Many of West Virginia's lawmakers, after passing a bare-bones budget last month, spoke much about how they held the line on spending and avoided any significant tax increases. Indeed, that was the outcome of their budget work, which Gov. Jim Justice allowed to become law without his signature because he could neither endorse the Legislature's spending plan but also could not risk having a government shutdown for lack of a budget.
However, those affected by some of the provisions of that budget ended up with a different take on the "no tax increase" claim. West Virginia University President Gordon Gee is among them, noting that significant cuts to higher education contained in the budget essentially meant that someone besides lawmakers were left doing the dirty work. That included WVU's board, which last week approved a 5 percent tuition and fee increase. "Today, we raised taxes on parents and on students," Gee said. "A tuition increase is a raise in taxes, and anyone in the Legislature who says they didn't raise taxes, well, they did today."
Marshall University's Board of Governors was left in the same situation. After learning that MU's allocation from the state would mean a loss of $3.2 million, it voted to raise tuition and fees by 9 percent in order to recoup that amount. After cutting back, consolidating jobs and taking other cost-cutting steps in recent years, the board and administration felt it had no choice but to raise tuition by that amount. In total over the last five years, Marshall has lost $14.5 million in base state funding - an amount equal to about 12 percent of the university's budget for this year.
Both Marshall and WVU were targeted for cuts of more than 6 percent in state support, and virtually all other state universities and colleges also faced reductions - much like they experienced over the last several years. It's a trend that does the state no good because it raises the barriers for people who seek to improve themselves and their job prospects by gaining the necessary knowledge and skills to become more employable.
That's especially a negative outcome for a state that needs to improve the education levels of its people, for their benefit as well as the benefit of the state's economy.
West Virginia ranks near the bottom of many education measures, and the percentage of high school graduates who further their education beyond high school is one of them. The new state budget and its impact on the cost of attending college in the Mountain State comes at a time when West Virginia was showing some improvement in the college-going rate in the past couple of years. But the cuts to higher education and the resulting tuition increases enacted to keep universities solvent is likely to threaten that progress and perhaps cause a reversal.
A better-educated workforce is vital to filling jobs that are now left vacant for lack of qualified applicants, crucial to helping persuade businesses to locate in West Virginia, and for developing the state's entrepreneurs of the future. But the Legislature's attitude toward supporting higher education institutions - as demonstrated over the last several years with repeated reductions in allocations - just increases the obstacles to making progress on all those fronts.
"We cannot cut ourselves to prosperity," WVU President Gee said last week. "No one has been able to do that." It's time the Legislature learned that lesson.