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Higher education is the engine that drives WV's economy

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Paul L. Hill Paul L. Hill
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Paul L. Hill is the chancellor of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission.

Out of every 100 students enrolled in ninth grade in West Virginia, only 17 will earn a two- or four-year college degree within 10 years. Of those students who start college, less than half will graduate with a certificate or degree within six years. 

Ensuring that more of our students enter and succeed in postsecondary education is crucial to our economy. Projections from labor economists indicate that by 2018 West Virginia will require at least 20,000 additional degrees above current degree production in order to sustain — not grow or diversify — our economy.

Such realities have led the state's higher education system to host serious conversations regarding the need to increase completion rates across our public colleges and universities. In late 2010, the West Virginia College Completion Task Force was convened and charged with examining state and national data on college completion in order to develop recommendations to increase the number of West Virginians with high quality certificates and degrees.

In May 2012, the task force, co-chaired by West Virginia first lady and Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College President Joanne Tomblin and West Virginia University President Jim Clements, released "Educating West Virginia is Everyone's Business: Report from the West Virginia College Completion Task Force." The report outlined a roadmap to improve college completion in the state's public higher education institutions and ensure that West Virginia will have the educated work force it needs to meet the demands of the 21st century.

The roadmap, emphasizing partnership and communication while protecting quality and access, included five key recommendations:

1. Make graduation a visible and tangible priority across the state;

2. Reduce the time it takes for students to earn a college certificate or degree;

3. Improve developmental education;

4. Increase adult completion rates; and

5. Connect funding to priorities.

The West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission has made significant progress in implementing the task force's recommendations. A majority of four-year academic programs have reduced the total credit hour requirements to graduate from 128 hours to 120 hours in order to facilitate on-time completion without impacting quality.

The commission and the state's four-year public colleges and universities are in the process of finalizing and implementing a new master plan, "Leading the Way: Access. Success. Impact." That plan represents a statewide commitment, led by the commission, to produce the highly skilled workers needed to further the state's knowledge economy.

The proposed master plan places an emphasis on expanding the educational pipeline by remaining focused on access while also working to ensure student success and the positive impact of those graduates on the state's economy.

For the 2013-18 master planning cycle, the state's higher education system established numerical goals — aligned with recent work force projections — to increase the number of degrees awarded annually at undergraduate and graduate levels. 

In addition to producing an increased number of degrees, the master plan focuses on high-need areas such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields and health professions. Such goals align with the need to prepare current and future students for the jobs of today and tomorrow and increase the educational attainment rate of the state's citizenry.