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Facing with declining enrollment and financial shortfalls, WVU’s Gee sees smaller WVU in the future

See ‘State of the University’ address here: President Gee says ‘everything on the table’ in terms of cuts; announces new last-dollar-in scholarship program

By Matt Young, WV Press Association

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – “It is time to truly transform our university into one of relevancy without losing sight of who we are, [and] without losing sight of our mission and our values.”

Gordon Gee

Those were the words spoken by West Virginia University (WVU) President E. Gordon Gee during Monday’s “State of the University” address. For nearly 70 minutes, Gee spoke of both the challenges faced by the university, as well as the drastic action needed to confront those challenges head on. 

“Imagine a garden that is filled with flowers but is never pruned,” Gee said. “It is difficult to see the beauty when it is overgrown. My friends, we have been overgrown for a very long time.”

Chief among those challenges is the projected $35 million structural budget deficit for fiscal-year 2024, which is expected to reach $75 million by 2029. According to Gee, the $35 million deficit represents approximately three-percent of WVU’s $1.3 billion annual operating budget. 

“From a short-term financial perspective, that is manageable,” Gee noted. “From a long-term perspective, it is not – unless we budget strategically for the future.”

Gee explained that the primary culprit behind the budget deficit is a combination of declining enrollment and “dramatically improved” graduation rates. 

“Graduating more students on time is exactly what we want,” Gee said. “But when we didn’t account for higher graduation rates, it affected our bottom line when we saw a decline in total enrollment.”

Gee added that while the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 “uprooted our lives,” college enrollment nationwide began to decline significantly in 2019. This was due, in part, to the rising cost of post-secondary education, and “a national narrative that questioned the value of college.”

During the period from 2019 until 2022, the National Student Clearinghouse reports an eight-percent drop in undergraduate enrollment; a phenomenon referred to as “the Great Dropout.” 

“Students chose not to return to college because of a strong job market, rising cost of attendance, and a cynical perspective on college education,” Gee noted. 

According to Gee, WVU is at a crossroads. 

“It is clear we need to get to a better place,” Gee said. “While these issues are affecting every institution in the country, we must be committed to becoming one of the first to overcome them – that is the opportunity before us.”

“Today I ask that we face forward and focus our energies on what I am calling our ‘First Principles,’” Gee added.

Gee listed those “First Principles” as putting students first, embracing “our land-grant mission and the people we serve,” and differentiation through investment. 

“I believe we would all agree that educating our young people is one of the most critical investments we can make as a society,” Gee said, before explaining the university’s new scholarship program: WVU Pledge. 

A last-dollar-in aid program, WVU Pledge will cover any remaining costs incurred by qualifying Promise Scholarship recipients, with an expected family-contribution of zero, after all other financial aid options have been exhausted. Incurred costs include tuition, housing, meal plans, and other fees. To be eligible, a student must be a first time incoming freshman at one of WVU’s campuses, plan to reside within a residence hall, and have submitted an application for Federal Student Aid. The student must also qualify for the Promise Scholarship by the May 1 priority deadline. 

“It is imperative that we remove as many barriers as possible to allow our brightest West Virginia students access to higher education,” Gee said. “Ensuring that their basic needs are met allows them to focus on their education and their future.”

With regard to embracing the university’s land-grant mission, Gee cited the WVU School of Dentistry’s participation in the “Give Kids A Smile” program, and the WVU Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic’s contributions of legal services to local communities as examples of the school’s philanthropy. 

“Through our four pillars of education, health care, prosperity, and purpose, we deliver on that (land-grant) mission every day,” Gee noted.

According to Gee, WVU is competing for students against out-of-state universities, such as those of Kentucky, Alabama and Tennessee, saying, “Although I’m proud to be in that company, these institutions have more resources for scholarships, facility upgrades, and student engagement.”

“That’s why it’s so critical we wisely invest every dollar into programs and resources that truly offer a personalized and unrivaled experience,” Gee added. “Because we are a system of unique campuses across the state, we have a variety of college experiences to best serve a student’s needs.”

To make these necessary changes a reality, Gee explained, it will require “putting everything on the table.”

“Everything must be reviewed and reimagined with a keen eye,” Gee said. “This is time for an investment strategy.”

“To evaluate the health of our institution, we will be partnering with the fresh eyes of consultants,” Gee added. “We will define the needs of our constituents, discover where we excel and create a model that is sustainable. It is critical that we ascertain an accurate assessment of our administration and academic portfolios and how they relate to the needs of our students.”

Gee noted that in the next 10 to 20 years will see a “smaller West Virginia University” with fewer programs and people. This is the result of changing market demands, as well as the increase in costs associated with recruiting and retaining university faculty and staff. 

“This assessment, and the data we will glean, will lead to the development of an investment plan that establishes immediate – short-term and long-term – goals and measures for the growth of West Virginia University,” Gee added. “We will invest in academic programs that meet the needs of our students and the market.” 

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