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Legislative LookAhead: Lawmakers battle ‘demographic cliff’ and declining ‘college-going rate’ when growing higher education in West Virginia

Expert: Prospective companies want ‘skilled, highly educated workforce’ but lack of teachers, encouragement and costs impact college enrollment

By Autumn Shelton, WV Press Association

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Education is a main concern for state legislators as they prepare for their 60-day session beginning on Wednesday, but it’s not just K-12 classrooms they must consider – it’s providing the state’s students with the ability to attend institutions of higher learning and with increasing higher education enrollment numbers. 

On Friday, during the West Virginia Press Association’s Legislative Lookahead held at the Culture Center, George Zimmerman, assistant vice president of enrollment management at West Virginia University; Fred Albert, president of the American Federation of Teachers–West Virginia; Dr. Carla Warren, director of educator development and support services with the West Virginia Department of Education; and Matt Turner, executive vice chancellor for administration with the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, discussed what they believe should be high priority legislation. 

NOTE: Reports are attached at bottom of this post.

According to Zimmerman, colleges and universities in West Virginia are facing declining enrollment numbers. 

Factors for this decline include the “demographic cliff,” a result of the nationwide decline in birth rates beginning during the 2008 economic downturn, and the need to increase “student readiness skills” before entering an institution of higher education, Zimmerman stated. 

“We have heard about the (low) math and English scores, we have heard about the need to better support our students, and that is something we are looking at, I know, at WVU,” Zimmerman said, adding that throughout the summer, students can visit the university via various programs to feel better prepared. 

As a former middle school math teacher, Albert added that the numbers of those who enter teacher education programs are in serious decline. 

“So, what can we do?” Albert asked. “Well, we can support our teachers for one. You know, respect is not just an Aretha Franklin saying. Respect is a real practice.” 

Ensuring the safety of all who are present in a school facility, increasing salaries and lowering class sizes are just a few ways to show educators respect, Albert continued. 

Fred Albert

Warren added that teacher recruitment is needed in West Virginia to fill the 1,544 classroom positions that are currently led by those who are not certified to teach that subject, or grade level. 

“We have certified teachers, but they are teaching outside of their content area,” Warren began, adding that of the 18 teacher preparation programs in the state, nine of them graduated less than 20 teachers last year. In three of those programs, no students graduated with a teaching degree. 

“We know that teachers are not coming to the profession,” Warren stated, noting that this trend began before the pandemic. 

One of the ways that the state has been working to address this is through the innovative Grow Your Own WV Pathway to Teaching,” Warren continued. This program financially assists students who want to become teachers by providing them dual-credit opportunities while still in high school. There is also an incremental wage structure for the apprenticeship model through the U.S. Department of Labor. 

“We are removing barriers such as cost and time, particularly, but we are increasing levels of support,” Warren stated. “This can only happen with strong partnerships. So, we’re working with workforce, we’re working with labor, we’re working with government to make sure that all of the pieces are in place. It is an ongoing challenge for us, but one that we are willing to take on.” 

Dr. Carla Warren

Turner added that there is a market for post-secondary education in West Virginia. 

“Our class of 2021 had the lowest college going rate since we have been tracking numbers – just under 46% – 45.9%,” according to Turner. 

He continued that economic development is “blossoming” in West Virginia, but a primary concern of employers is finding “a skilled, highly educated workforce.”

“We have got to create these pathways for our young people and continue to cultivate an atmosphere that is conducive to business and good jobs that will pay families a good, strong living wage and enable them to prosper here in West Virginia. So, that’s what the employers are telling us–a high school diploma is not good enough.” 

Like the Grow Your Own Pathway, Turner said it would be beneficial to have a “statewide, state-funded” dual-credit program for all high school students who take college courses. 

He said this would help colleges and universities matriculate students in all fields of interest, including healthcare, IT and manufacturing. 

Matt Turner

“We do have fantastic programs, but getting the word out is tough, and reaching that student who has never had that person who told them what college is about and what it is going to be is tough,” Turner said, adding that there are still many first generation college students throughout the state who can use help. 

In response to a question about state funding for higher education, Turner said that the percentage of funding has “significantly dropped” over the last 20 years as part of a nationwide trend. 

Following a recent legislative policy change, Turner said that beginning next year state funding for higher education will begin to be based upon performance, which will include enrollment data. 

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