By JAKE JARVIS
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice’s bill to restructure how colleges and universities across the state are governed was approved with a voice vote Wednesday afternoon by the House of Delegates’ Education Committee.
House Bill 2815, which was forwarded to the House Judiciary Committee, would largely strip the Higher Education Policy Commission’s power to govern the state’s public colleges. Instead, the commission’s role mostly would be limited to offering policy recommendations to the Legislature and collecting data to track educational outcomes of students.
The bill designates four colleges as being exempt from most of the HEPC’s oversight: West Virginia University, Marshall University, the West Virginia School of Osteopathic School of Medicine and Shepherd University.
“I think the overall impact on students, from my perspective the more authority and autonomy local governing boards have to sit down and work on issues, the more we’re able to address the impact for our students,” said Rob Alsop, WVU’s vice president for legal, government and entrepreneurial engagement, who helped draft the bill. “I think that with the second level of approval from the Policy Commission, there are some benefits to that, but there are also some time and energy and efforts that are lost.”
If the bill is ultimately approved and signed into law, it would give exempt colleges greater latitude to increase their tuition and fees with little state oversight, remove caps on how much college presidents can be paid and allows schools to issue revenue bonds without HEPC approval.
It would allow colleges to increase tuition 10 percent in a single year, or 21 percent over three years, with no oversight. Alsop said in the past three years, WVU has increased its tuition 23 percent.
Currently, HEPC looks at peer institutions to determine how much a college president should be paid. Those amounts range from about $310,000 for the president of WVSOM to as high as $1 million for WVU’s president, according to a fiscal note attached to the bill. Those amounts are the cap on how much the president can make.
In fall, WVU’s board of governors approved a five-year contract for university President E Gordon Gee that nets him $800,000 a year, with the option of earning an additional $200,000 a year in bonuses by staying at the school.
The bill also would prevent the HEPC from assessing fees of colleges and universities, fees that go to help pay for the widely-used Degree Works software, campus safety training and the Higher Education Grant Program, a need-based grant that helps the neediest students in the Mountain State with college costs.
Several committee members worried if the exempt schools could be entrusted with so little oversight.
Alsop said that there were several safeguards to prevent schools from wandering down that path, namely that the schools still receive significant state appropriations that could be altered depending on the school’s actions, local governing boards still hold public meetings and the schools are subject to the state’s open records laws. With these protections in mind, Alsop feels there is no “realistic risk” that exempt schools will fail.
Previously, a subcommittee on higher education discussed a bill that would have allowed colleges to charge college students a premium cost for taking more than 15-18 credit hours each semester. That bill never gained traction because the idea also appeared in Justice’s bill.
Proponents of the premium tuition charges, namely Hallie Mason, a lobbyist representing several smaller colleges across the state, said they are needed for when students take as many as 21 credit hours a semester only to drop them after the semester begins. Mason reasoned that schools need to be able to recover the cost of providing more classes that aren’t actually needed.
That provision was ultimately struck from HB 2815 after several legislators pointed out that colleges might be better served by increasing the fee to drop a course late in the semester.
In the original bill, only WVU, Marshall and the WVSOM were listed as exempt schools. Delegate Michael Folk, R- Berkeley, offered up an amendment at the last minute to add another school to the list of exempt ones: Shepherd University. Folk, who often praises the school from the Eastern Panhandle during committee meetings, said the school is responsible enough to have less oversight from the HEPC.
Folk’s amendment to add Shepherd was approved by a voice vote with several nays heard.
Speaking to a group of higher education officials lingering after the committee meeting ended, Joey Garcia, the governor’s senior counsel for legislation and policy, said if all of the state’s colleges were to be added to the list of exempt schools, the bill “won’t happen.” He later told the Gazette-Mail the governor would need to take a close look at the final bill before deciding if he supports it.
Garcia also told the committee that the WVSOM was added to the list of exempt schools after school officials said they wanted to privatize. Justice didn’t want that to happen, so in exchange for the school changing its mind, he proposed including them in the schools exempt from much of the HEPC’s oversight.
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