The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

January 23, 2013

Higher education chancellor updates Rotary on plans

By Sarah Plummer
Register-Herald Reporter

— Dr. Paul Hill, chancellor of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, gave Beckley Rotary Club an overview of higher education in West Virginia yesterday, today and over the next several years.

Now at the crossroads of the old and new five-year plans for the state’s public colleges and universities, Hill explained that West Virginia can laude some of the progress made over the last five years, like an increase in overall higher education enrollment of 6 percent and an increase in adult enrollment of 9 percent.

In addition, Hill said the state system has seen a 24 percent increase in low income students attending college with 11,000 students receiving some kind of needs-based funding.

He explained that over the last decade, the state has grown the amount of external research funding at Marshall and West Virginia University from $35 million to more than $200 million annually.

In addition, West Virginia continues to offer low tuition rates and is nearly the lowest among the 16 states that comprise the Southern Regional Education Board.

The Higher Education Policy Commission is currently working on increasing “access, success and impact” in the new five-year master plan “Leading the Way.”

Hill explained that the system will continue to focus on access for low income students and adult students and making sure those who attend succeed in earning a degree.

“We have some campuses where four out of 10 students don’t return after their freshman year and that’s not acceptable,” he said.

The commission plans to address retention rates through mentoring, increased access to campus information and programming.

Hill noted that increasing higher education enrollment and success positively impacts the state’s economy through wages, business creation and overall economic health.

In addition, the master plan will continue a statewide focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) degrees.

Already increased 12 percent in the last five years, Hill indicated further increase in STEM degrees will drive job and technology development in West Virginia.

And acknowledging that West Virginia’s faculty salaries are well below national average, Hill said, “we would like to improve this situation so that we don’t lose good faculty.”

Lastly, Hill discussed the increased popularity of MOOCs (Massive open online courses).

MOOCs are open, free courses designed for individuals with the drive to increase their knowledge but that do not offer credits for the classes.

Hill explained that some universities like Caltech and Colorado Tech plan to begin offering credit to students enrolled in these courses, meaning more students may look for education online.

Hill said he sees West Virginia’s future as blending the trend in online education and in-seat instruction.

“I believe that what we do in West Virginia needs to be to take advantage of those types of opportunities, but not step away from our traditional bricks and mortar model of our institutions,” he shared. “On a campus, you have the experience of interacting with professors and diverse students and have the opportunity for a much richer education than sitting online.”

He anticipates the higher education system in West Virginia will embrace the challenge of offering more blended, online and in-seat courses.

— E-mail: splummer@register-herald.com