The Next Step: The Future of Higher Education

August 25, 2014


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The Next Step: The Future of Higher Education


By Jennifer Jett

West Virginia’s industries are evolving, and accompanying this progress is a host of new and unique needs within the state’s business community. With the growth and shifts in dynamics, more jobs are available, raising the question of how the state will supply a large enough work force to get the work done. As the demands of the world market expand and technology continues to change, the creation of specialized jobs is producing an immediate need for specialized training.

With all of the recent talk about surges in industry, economic opportunity and the struggle to find qualified workers to fill this growing abundance of jobs, West Virginia Executive turned to the leaders of the state’s higher education sector for insight.

Ben Exley, IV has served as executive director of West Virginia Independent Colleges and Universities (WVICU) since December 2010. Prior to this position, he served as a WVICU board member from 1999-2008 and held several officer positions, including board chair. He is responsible for all operations of the organization, as well as the Annual Scholarship Campaign, through which he garners support for the Circle of Vision Scholarship Program. He previously served as executive vice president of James Communications, interim executive director for the Ohio Valley Industrial and Business Development Corporation, Mid-Atlantic regional vice president of Cardinal Health and president and CEO of Ohio Valley Clarksburg Inc. He holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from West Virginia Wesleyan College and an MBA from Northern Illinois University. Exley has served on the board of trustees for West Virginia Wesleyan College and The Linsly School and on the board of directors for many businesses, including Valley National Gases and the Ohio Valley Business and Industrial Development Corporation.

Dr. Paul Hill, chancellor of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission (WVHEPC), has more than 25 years of experience in academic research, grant administration and public policy development, and he has held CEO positions in state, federal and private organizations. He was named chancellor in 2012, after serving as the system’s interim chancellor since 2007. Hill has helped design and manage a number of research initiatives with academic institutions, including the West Virginia Research Trust Fund, known as Bucks for Brains, the West Virginia Research Challenge Fund and the West Virginia Eminent Scholars Initiative. He has also appeared before Congress on numerous occasions and provided congressional testimony on science, technology and education policy. Recently, Hill became a member of State Higher Education Executive Officers’ Federal Relations Committee and was appointed by Governor Earl Ray Tomblin to the Southern Regional Education Board. A native West Virginian, he holds degrees from Marshall University and the University of Louisville in biology and chemistry.

James Skidmore, chancellor of the Community and Technical College System of West Virginia (CTCSWV), has more than 30 years of experience in higher education and has served in positions at what are now known as West Virginia University Institute of Technology, West Virginia State University and the West Virginia Board of Regents. He has also been involved in the implementation of Senate bills 547, 653, 703 and 448 and House bill 3215, all of which are recent legislation that set a new direction for community and technical college education in the State of West Virginia. Skidmore was instrumental in facilitating the formation of a statewide community and technical college system that resulted in the separation of six community and technical colleges from baccalaureate institutions. In addition to his duties in the central office, he serves on numerous statewide committees and councils dealing with work force development, economic development and other issues relating to community college education.

Hill, Exley and Skidmore have offered their insight to help us better understand how higher education institutions and systems operate in West Virginia, as well as the direction in which our state’s industries are moving and what we need to do to be successful when we get there.


Ben Exley, IV

Executive Director, West Virginia Independent Colleges and Universities
WVE: Tell us about the trends you are currently seeing in private higher education.

BE: In April of 2013, Hart Research Associates interviewed 318 organizations with 25 or more employees. Ninety-three percent of them cited that they are looking for job candidates with a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and, most importantly, solve complex problems. Nine in 10 required that the candidate demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity, intercultural skills and the capacity for new learning. This is exactly what the eight member schools of the WVICU are continuing to provide their students through a liberal arts education in addition to a strong major area of study.

WVE: How is the fast-paced evolution of technology changing education, and what kind of impact is it having? 

BE: Technology is one of the driving forces contributing to the transformation of higher education. Despite its obvious appeal and comfort level to students, technology also presents challenges.

Academic planners are always playing catch-up to the speed of newer technological improvements, administrators are concerned about the price tags of staying current and the training of faculty and staff continues to require vigilance and oversight.

With the introduction of MOOC, or massive online open courses, in 2012, technology changed the playing field for students who want to use hybrid models of mixing and matching their learning interests.

While West Virginia’s private colleges and universities offer special niches for personalized attention, we must be vigilant of and proactive toward the changing needs of student learners. Technology will remain a major player for the foreseeable future.

WVE: West Virginia has one of the lowest graduation rates and rates for degree completion in the country. What are the drivers behind these problems, and what is being done to address them?

BE: Approximately 36 percent, or 3,200, of our students are the first of any generation in their family to attend a college or university. Nationally, the six-year graduation rate for these students is 70 percent. First generation students thrive at our member colleges and universities due to a low student-to-faculty ratio of 13 to 1 and the nurturing they receive. In addition, the WVICU Circle of Vision Scholarship program, funded by personal, corporate and foundation contributions, supports more than 50 West Virginia students per year at WVICU’s eight member colleges and universities. These students are motivated, have financial need and graduate on time. We now have graduates from the program working and living in West Virginia.

WVE: What would you say are the biggest challenges in education today?

BE: One of the challenges in our education system today is convincing parents and potential college students that earning a college degree is still important and valuable. There has been increasing skepticism and vocal negativity regarding higher education among politicians, high-visibility spokespeople and some media. A report released June 24, 2014 by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York addressed confusion of the college debt bandwagon conversation and the long-term advantages of a college degree. They calculated the costs of college, wages lost by being in college and earnings after college compared to high school grads going directly into the work force. The return on a college investment has been about 15 percent higher per year over the last decade. Bachelor’s degree holders earn $2.9 million between entering the work force and age 64, compared with less than $1.8 million for high school graduates. And we all know the value of a college experience goes far beyond just economics.

A second challenge is convincing the public that higher education is truly affordable, both in public and private sectors. A recent article in The Atlantic reported that the average net price of a bachelor’s degree is, on average, 55 percent lower than sticker price. Our West Virginia private institutions are extremely diligent when it comes to providing a strong academic and co-curricular experience at a price that is affordable to each family. We need to do a better job in West Virginia at getting this message to families who may not be familiar with financial aid opportunities.

WVE: What is the key to getting West Virginia students to stay in the Mountain State after they graduate college?

BE: One key opportunity for both students and all organizations, particularly in West Virginia, is student internships. Internships within all types of real-world settings lead to success and growth for both the student and the organization. More West Virginia students will remain in the state as the number of graduates increase each year. This, along with a receptive business climate, will make us more attractive to growing businesses and will create startup opportunities.

WVE: What challenges do independent and private colleges face that public institutions do not?

BE: While you might expect me to say that we do not receive funding from the state via taxpayers, the major challenge that affects our enrollment and costs is perception. The major misperception is affordability. The National Center for Education Statistics reported in a 2013 study that 26 percent of students at four-year, nonprofit colleges graduated with no debt. The median total debt for graduates of four-year public colleges and universities was $22,625 compared to $27,000 at the independent schools, a difference of slightly more than $1,000 per year. The average amount of financial aid given per year by independent colleges and universities was $14,826 compared to $4,765 for their public counterparts. We need to work on that perception.

Paul Hill

Chancellor, West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission

WVE: Tell us about the trends you are currently seeing in public higher education. 

PH: We are seeing a fall in the number of high school-aged students—and, therefore, graduates—and an increase in adult learners over the age of 25 who are returning to college. Currently, we have nearly 200,000 West Virginians who have some college but no degree; therefore, outreach to this population and the changing job markets have brought a growing number of these individuals back into postsecondary education. The changing economics and markets have also demonstrated the greater need for education or training beyond high school with a projected 51 percent of all jobs in West Virginia requiring such education by 2018. We’re seeing the greatest numbers of graduates in health care and business comprising the leading job trends in West Virginia.

WVE: How is the fast-paced evolution of technology changing education, and what kind of impact is it having? 

PH: Technology is changing higher education in many ways, with the most obvious being online education and degree programs. West Virginia’s institutions are providing a number of these opportunities that complement the on-campus experience in a blended learning environment. The benefits may seem obvious with less reliance on the upkeep of brick-and-mortar institutions, but a word of caution: not all students fare well in these environments. Only highly motivated, well-prepared students will persist, and the drop-out rates of MOOCs demonstrate this fact.

Technology is also changing how we do business as institutions of higher education. The ability to collect and analyze large amounts of information for both policy development and public consumption is providing new ways of responding to issues from financial support to course offerings.

WVE: West Virginia has one of the lowest graduation rates and rates for degree completion in the country. What are the drivers behind these problems, and what is being done to address them? 

PH: Our history as a state and our traditional industries have been a huge driver of the perception that a college degree was not necessary to get a good-paying job. While it was certainly historically true that high school graduates could find jobs paying up to $70,000 right out of high school, that is no longer the case. While demand has increased nationwide for college graduates with a bachelor’s degree or higher, the demand for high school graduates in the work force has declined. In 2012, the nationwide work force had 14 percent fewer workers with a high school diploma than in 1989, while the number of workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher nearly doubled. The perception that college was not necessary has driven down attainment levels, even though it is no longer true. A Georgetown University study projects a need for 20,000 additional graduates—above the current production of 17,000 of public two- and four-year schools—just to keep West Virginia’s economy operating at its current level.

The other major factor is an aging population. It’s not that West Virginia hasn’t been educating its population—our college-going rate has been at or near the national level of 63 percent; it’s that older, less mobile West Virginians now make up a major segment of the population.

We are reaching out to encourage more students to attend college and gain a degree through such programs as the PROMISE Scholarship, West Virginia Higher Education Grant, the College Foundation of West Virginia and West Virginia GEAR UP. These are financial, online and social support programs that help more students prepare for, pay for and attend a college or university in West Virginia. The commission is also focusing on completion efforts for those who enter a degree program to ensure greater numbers actually graduate. At the heart of our new five-year master plan for higher education, policies that support counseling, degree mapping, mentoring and appropriate course loads are focused on assisting students throughout their postsecondary experience.

WVE: What is the key to getting West Virginia students to stay in West Virginia after they graduate college? 

PH: The changing economic market is already attracting more students to jobs here at home, with new data showing that 70 percent of all PROMISE scholars were still employed in West Virginia seven years after obtaining their undergraduate degrees. As opportunities diversify, the trend for all students has shown a steady increase of entering in-state jobs. With the expansion of natural gas resources and Governor Tomblin’s efforts to attract major industries to the state through Project ASCENT, we are likely to see this trend continue.

WVE: What role does the recruitment of out-of-state and international students play in your plans, and why are these students important to your schools and to the state? 

PH: Non-resident students already play an important role in helping to brand the state, what it has to offer and, potentially, their retention in the work force. Again, our tuition rates are low and serve as an attraction to these students. Certainly, international students are playing an increasing role and, under an initiative by the commission, will play an even greater role in the future. We have always emphasized the globally-educated student, but by increasing the number of international students recruited to West Virginia, we address many factors, including the competitiveness of ideas, sharing of perspectives with our domestic students and increased diversity of our student body. By one estimate, international students spend as much as a quarter-million dollars on obtaining a degree in the United States, but their value to our system in providing a global educational experience for all students goes well beyond this.


James Skidmore

Chancellor, Community and Technical College System of West Virginia

WVE: Tell us about the types of trends you are currently seeing in public higher education. 

JS: From a community college perspective, we are focusing our efforts on providing employers with a skilled technician-level work force. Some refer to these occupations as middle-skill jobs. These are, in fact, high-skill jobs that require education beyond high school but in most cases require less than a baccalaureate degree. Employers are facing the issue of having an aging skilled work force that is eligible to retire. At some companies, 50-60 percent of their skilled workers are eligible to enter the ranks of retirement. Mainly because of the changing technology, those entering the work force will need a higher level of skill if they are to successfully replace the gap left by retirees. I expect this trend to impact many incumbent workers, as well as those who will need additional education and training to continue to be productive in technology-intensive workplaces.

As West Virginia’s energy and petrochemical industries expand, such as with a new cracker plant, they will require high-skill workers. Those seeking employment in these industries must increase their education and skill levels to qualify for those jobs. Community colleges are filling that training niche, and because of this trend, the student demographic for community colleges will continue to be a mix of adults aged 25-45 and recent high school graduates.

WVE: How is the fast-paced evolution of technology changing education, and what kind of impact is it having?

JS: Technology has permeated almost every aspect of our lives, and that is also true for our colleges and the industries with which we work. In order for companies to be competitive, they are required to embrace technology and invest in the technology that will enhance their efforts to compete in a very competitive market. Similarly, to meet work force needs, community colleges need to offer technology and equipment-intensive programs, and those are expensive to operate. This expense makes it a challenge to maintain state-of-the-art technology that gives students the technology skills they will need as they enter the workplace.

At the same time, technology is enabling our colleges to be more cost-effective in course delivery by utilizing online and remote instruction and simulators for our technical programs. We are also exploring ways to use information technology to provide our students with better advising and more student support services. We are also making sure that the students who enroll and complete our education and training programs are learning the technology skills they need to be competitive in the job market.

WVE: West Virginia has one of the lowest graduation rates and rates for degree completion in the country. What is the driver behind these problems, and what is being done to address them?

JS: There are a couple of critical factors to consider when looking at those rates. First, I want to point out that we are making progress. If you look at all adults in West Virginia, only 18.6 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher, but if you look at adults 25-34, 24.1 percent have completed a bachelor’s degree. So we are not where we need to be, but we are getting the message out that college is important. Second, when you look at community colleges, it is important to look at the multiple roles they play. Some students may attend one or two years before transferring while others are seeking a degree or certification. Often, adult students only want a few courses to upgrade their skills and never intend to graduate. Third, community colleges are open access institutions, which means there are no admissions requirements to enroll. Some of our individual programs like nursing have selective admissions, but in general at community colleges, we try to serve anyone who wants an education.

One problem is that 65 percent of students enrolling in community colleges are lacking the academic skills to be successful in college-level work and are placed in developmental education. This is consistent across the country, not just in West Virginia. The Community and Technical College System of West Virginia, though, has been working very intensively with our colleges to reform the delivery of developmental education, which we know will increase the graduation rates for these students. This is part of a broad set of strategies that we are using to increase retention and graduation rates, including changing how we deliver programs so that we can accelerate time to completion, deepening student engagement and providing broader student support programs.

WVE: What do you see as the biggest challenges in education today?

JS: Our state funding has been decreasing, and our state’s need for skilled workers is increasing. To meet the work force needs of West Virginia’s employers, community and technical colleges have implemented 133 new technical programs over the past six years. Most of these programs are not only expensive to implement but also expensive to maintain. With recent budget restraints, it has been a challenge to maintain these programs and also provide the support services required for successful student completion. Although our community and technical college degree attainment has steadily increased over the past five years, because of the population we serve, student completion will remain a challenge for our community colleges.

WVE: How does global competitiveness play a role in determining the community and technical college’s need for new programs and curriculum updates?

JS: Since our employers must compete in a global market, community colleges must prepare their graduates for a level that will enhance employers’ efforts to meet these global challenges. A world-class work force is necessary to compete against world-class competition. The quality of the product many times is determined by the quality of the employees. In order to prepare our graduates to meet the challenges of competing against world standards, we need to constantly refine and develop programs and curricula that reflect changing world standards.

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