The state's higher education system is an enterprise worth about $13.5 billion, and West Virginia sees a large chunk of that.
Paul Hill, chancellor of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, told a legislative interim committee that the higher education system has an economic impact of about $7.9 billion, meaning the state can expect to see a $50 return on every $1 spent on education in fiscal year 2014. This information is based on a 2010 report by the West Virginia University Bureau for Business and Economic Research and takes into account inflation as well as expected jobs created, business volume generated, employee compensation and state taxes.
However, the higher education system may have some problems maintaining this level of economic impact. Hill said although the HEPC and individual institutions are implementing ways to keep students in school and graduate on time, the number of students who need remedial courses or who drop out of school continues to rise.
"We know there's an issue of getting students in the door and we lose many of our students in the first year or two," Hill told the committee.
Enrollment has dropped this school year, but is still up by about 6 percent over 2008. Hill credits the economic recession for growing enrollment numbers, saying many adults decided to return to school because they lost their jobs or to advance their education. More than 60,000 graduates have entered the state's work force, and an increasing number of graduates are choosing to remain in West Virginia after earning their degrees. According to the WVU report, 45.2 percent of graduates in the past 13 years were on the payrolls of West Virginia businesses in 2010. Most of these graduates work full-time and have associate's, bachelor's or master's degrees, earning an average yearly wage of $42,247.
However, the state's work force still needs more students. Recent reports show the state is facing a "skills gap" that requires at least 20,000 additional degrees, above current degree production, by 2018 to sustain the state's economy.
"We see a need for about 20,000 additional students added to the workforce in West Virginia by 2018. That's only five years out," Hill said. "We need to increase this number just to stay where we are in West Virginia."
To do that, HEPC has challenged institutions across the state to develop their own ideas to retain and graduate their students. The West Virginia College Completion Task Force established five recommendations to help colleges and universities. The recommendations include making graduation a visible and tangible priority for all students, reducing the time it takes for students to earn a college certificate or degree, improving developmental education and connecting to funding priorities.
Increasing adult completion rates is another recommendation. According to Hill, more than 173,000 West Virginia adults have some college but have not earned a degree. Many colleges and universities across the sate, including Marshall University, Shepherd University and WVU, offer the RBA Today program that allows adult learners to earn a regents bachelors of arts. The program graduated nearly 1,100 students in the 2011-12 academic year, a 27 percent increase over the 2010-11 academic year. In 2011, every institution graduated more students than it did the previous year. Marshall graduated 340, an increase from 231 in 2010. Shepherd and WVU graduated 109 and 162 respectively.
"We are reaching these students who have returned to complete course sand we're graduating more and more," Hill said.
The RBA program focuses mainly on the 32,000 adults in West Virginia who have already completed more than 60 hours of coursework between 1998 and 2007.