Panel may recommend lifting tuition hike limits

January 6, 2019

CHARLESTON — Part of the governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Four-Year Higher Education might recommend doing away with a state board’s ability to reject colleges’ proposed tuition hikes and the board’s power to stop colleges from creating new academic programs that duplicate existing programs.

A law passed in 2017 (House Bill 2815) allowed all colleges to increase resident student tuition by as much as 10 percent in a single year without getting approval from the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission board. The law also said the increases couldn’t exceed 21 percent over any three-year period without HEPC board approval.

Previously, colleges could hike tuition up to 5 percent in a single year without the HEPC board’s OK to go further.

Average four-year college tuition for in-state students has increased 57 percent in the past decade (21 percent in the past five years) to reach $7,500 this academic year. Meanwhile, West Virginia’s median household income over the past decade has increased only slightly.

Drew Payne, who is chairman of the Blue Ribbon governance subcommittee that’s considering removing power from the HEPC and replacing it with something else, revealed draft legislation last month that would entirely remove the HEPC’s ability to reject tuition increases.

The draft bill would add language saying the college “governing board seeking the exemption must declare that the institution is confronting a financial exigency and that the increase in tuition and fees is vital to the institution’s ability to survive.”

But it doesn’t say any independent entity could decide that that declared “financial exigency”— defined in Merriam-Web-ster dictionary as a requirement or “a state of affairs that makes urgent demands” — isn’t really an exigency.

Republican Gov. Jim Justice didn’t appoint any students to the Blue Ribbon panel. He didn’t directly order a discussion of lowering costs or implementing

free tuition for four-year schools, and the panel hasn’t discussed it much.

On Friday, the governance subcommittee members met with other Blue Ribbon panel members and others not on the panel at all to go over lists of the services HEPC offers and the powers it has.

One list showed the consensus of six schools — Bluefield State College, Concord University, Fairmont State University, Glenville State College, West Liberty University and West Virginia State University — on which services and powers they want to alter, remove or keep in HEPC or whatever agency replaces it. Friday’s meeting included cross-referencing that list with Shepherd University’s separate comments on services and powers.

When Payne got to No. 145 on a list, a suggestion from the six schools to remove the requirement that HEPC establish rules on tuition and fees beyond what’s specified in state law (the law includes the aforementioned tuition percentage increase limits), one person did speak up.

“What protects the students from our institutions just deciding that, you know, we can raise tuition 25 percent?” asked Concord University President Kendra Boggess.

Payne, a former West Virginia University Board of Governors member who is currently vice chairman of the HEPC board, replied that, “I think the way that we’ve all looked at it is that power is given to your board of governors. I mean, it’s not another layer in Charleston.”

Each college has its own board of governors, whose members are mostly appointed by the governor and must have Senate sign off.

Marty Becker, a current WVU Board of Governors member who’s also on the Blue Ribbon governance subcommittee, said, “I don’t think any board of governors is going to increase tuition more than they absolutely have to because they know that it has a detrimental impact on enrollment of students.

“I think there is some marketplace constraint that you have to rely upon, as opposed to an artificial standard,” Becker said.

The conversation on tuition lasted about 5 minutes out of the two-hour meeting. The third and final governance subcommittee member, state Schools Superintendent Steve Paine, had already left the meeting when the topic came up.

WVU has the highest in-state student tuition rate among the state’s public colleges, according to the latest HEPC data.

Regarding academic program oversight, the HEPC board currently has the power to reject academic programs proposed by all four-year colleges except for the “exempt” colleges — WVU, Marshall University and the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine — to stop duplicative programs and other issues.

It can only reject programs proposed by the “exempt” schools if they are, as state law puts it, “proposed to be offered at a new location not presently served by that institution.”

The six previously mentioned colleges that produced the list of how they all agreed the HEPC services and powers should change previously said they wanted whatever replaces the HEPC (they suggest keeping the name to save costs on things like stationary) to have the power to reject academic programs proposed by all four-year schools, including the exempt ones.

But Fairmont State President Mirta Martin, who serves as the six colleges’ unofficial Blue Ribbon spokeswoman, said Friday that because there didn’t seem to be enough support on the Blue Ribbon panel to bring WVU and Marshall under an entity that could possibly reject duplicative programs they processorpose, then the HEPC or its successor entity shouldn’t have rejection power over any college.

“If that is not inclusive, it need not be there,” Martin said.

Martin seemed to give up on the earlier position amid Friday’s debate, during which Glenville State reversed position. But Boggess seemed to retain concerns about program duplication.

It was unclear Friday when the governance subcommittee or full Blue Ribbon panel will finalize its recommendations. The 2019 regular legislative session starts Wednesday, Jan. 9, and the governor’s initially publicly stated deadline for a report passed Dec. 10.

Payne said he’d like to have revised draft legislation ready to send to Blue Ribbon members by Tuesday, Jan. 8, to review.

But he also said that “we really can’t have a complete report on higher education without incorporating” community colleges. Their involvement — Blue Ribbon panel members have long requested community colleges officially become part of the scope — could come later. Several community college presidents sat in on Friday’s meeting anyway.

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com, facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

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