Students shouldn’t bear most cost of new burdens

January 19, 2019

The statue of John Marshall on the Marshall University campus has the jurist in a pensive mood, pondering the great questions of the times. The latest question to perplex the former chief justice of the United States is probably, “How am I supposed to pay for all of this?”

The West Virginia Legislature and Gov. Jim Justice, in their haste to confirm the adage “No good deed goes unpunished,” may have just hit Marshall University with a $4.7 million hole in its 2019-20 operating budget.

Someone will have to fill that hole. It will either be the Legislature through an appropriation, higher-education employees through staffing cuts, or students through another tuition increase. If only one of the sports betting operations in West Virginia would give odds on these.

Justice says he wants all state employees to receive a 5 percent pay raise next fiscal year, which begins July 1. The state has the money to do that for employees whose agencies are funded through general revenues, but when you get to agencies that have special revenue funds, such as college tuition, Justice’s proposal does not specifically fund them.

So, if people who work in higher education are to receive the same 5 percent raises that other state workers get, colleges will have to find the money themselves unless they receive an increase in funding from the Legislature.

Now add to that the fact that the PEIA funding mechanism is likely to change, with the state picking up a greater share of employees’ health care costs. Again, higher education again is left to figure out how it will pay its increased share.

According to a spreadsheet distributed at a legislative committee meeting Monday, Marshall would find itself with a $4.7 million shortfall if the funding proposals go through as they are now. Mountwest Community and Technical College would have to come up with about $237,000. So we’re talking about $5 million that would be needed to help just those two schools.

The good news is that proposals introduced early in the session often are changed as the session nears its end in March.

The bad news is, students cannot be asked to pay all or most of this shortfall. Well, they can, but not without consequences.

As has been noted in this space recently, tuition has increased steadily as the state’s median household income has remained stable. Or, if you prefer, stagnant.

People can talk about administrative bloat in higher education. They can talk about waste and mismanagement, but if there’s $5 million of that at Marshall and Mountwest now, someone has not been doing his or her job.

So what’s the answer? At this point it’s too early to say. The Legislature will work on the next fiscal year’s budget as it considers hundreds of pieces of legislation that will affect that budget. It’s why the budget usually is one of the final pieces of business legislators take care of, even if it means a special session immediately after the regular one.

Legislators will consider various scenarios for higher education funding. They will have many spreadsheets to study. The hope here is that with each page of a new spreadsheet, legislators will also see the face of a nontraditional student working toward a new career, a military veteran in search of vocational training at a CTC or a first-generation university student from a working-class family.

Colleges and universities may find money hard to come by, but so do students who rely on grants and loans to achieve their educations.

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