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WV students worry about proposed budget cuts

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Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's request that state agencies, including the higher education system, cut 7.5 percent of their budgets has some college students worried they may pay the price.

Adam Fridley, who serves as the chief of staff of Marshall University's Student Government Association and chairman of the Higher Education Policy Commission's Advisory Council of Students, told a legislative interim committee Jan. 7 that the cost of higher education keeps increasing. That, on top of the governor's budget cuts, could result in fewer students enrolling in colleges because they can't afford it.

"We feel this is incredibly problematic with respect to the Higher Education Policy Commission budget and the CTC budget," Fridley told the Legislative Oversight Commission on Educational Accountability. "These budget cuts hit right at the heart of our colleges."

Fridley pointed out the importance of obtaining a college degree. He cited recent statistics that forecast the need for 40,000 additional college graduates by 2018 just to keep up with current market demands. A 2011 Georgetown University study found students with at least some post-secondary education weathered the economic recession better than those with a high school diploma.

"In fact during the recovery, there have been five million additional job losses for those with just a high school education," Fridley said.

The cost of college has increased steadily over the past 30 years. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of tuition and fees at four-year, public universities was $891 in 1983. In 2007, the average cost of tuition jumped to $4,101.

"We've seen a cost-shift," Fridley said. "I think a cost-shift is a very appropriate term."

According to studies from the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the cost of education since 1980 has shifted. The studies found that since that time, the amount of money states appropriated for public institutions has decreased. This puts a heavier burden on students, Fridley said.

"We see this a lot in our retention rates," Fridley pointed out.

Budget cuts mean more than rising tuition, pointed out ACS member Loren Bell from West Virginia University-Parkersburg. In some institutions, students participate in work study programs to mentor or tutor other students who may be falling behind. If budget cuts affect those programs, those struggling students may not get the additional help they need.

"If you have budget cuts, that's not going to be an option anymore," Bell said. "Our institutions frankly can't afford it with a budget cut."

Without peer mentoring and tutoring, many students will be forced to drop out of college or face carrying a low grade point average with them throughout the rest of their college careers, Bell said.

In many instances, it often takes longer than four years for a student to earn a bachelor's degree. Fridley said he's heard the misconception that schools benefit when students are forced to stay there longer, so they make it harder to graduate on time. However, Fridley pointed out that many times, the length of time a student is in school has nothing to do with academics.

"I would say the cause of that isn't the university agenda. It's tuition that's gone up hundreds of percent since 1980," Fridley said. "Students are taking fewer credit hours and working more hours in the field. The longer they're there, the fewer hours they take, the less likely they are to complete the program."

Since the Promise scholarship's inception 10 years ago, thousands of West Virginia students have completed degree programs at one of the state's four-year schools. However, the Legislature has changed the eligibility requirements several times, something Bell says puts lower-income students at a disadvantage because they typically don't attend the best schools.

"By making eligibility more difficult, it's going to push out the students with lower income," she said. "They're not going to be able to afford (college). As a nation, we want our students to get a college degree."

This isn't the first time higher education institutions have been asked to scale back their budgets. Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Cabell, pointed out that higher education went through budget cuts during the Bob Wise administration. Then, as it is now, the rising cost of health care is to blame.

"We've never been able to get our hands around the Medicaid budget," Plymale said.

Although the state has balanced its books and maintained excellent bond ratings, the cost of Medicaid is once again expected to increase next year. To save money and ward off a deficit, Tomblin asked state agencies in September to take a look at their budgets and cut 7.5 percent. That money would be used to pay down the Medicaid debt.

Plymale said tackling the cost of health care would help higher education and other state agencies.

"One of the things that will help higher education is getting a handle on health care inflation and Medicaid," Plymale said.