The Blue Ribbon Commission looking at changes to West Virginia's higher education system is considering a proposal to remove the cap on how much state-supported colleges and universities can increase tuition from year to year.
This is a bad idea for several reasons.
One: As noted in a recent article in The Charleston Gazette-Mail, a law passed in 2017 allows schools to increase tuition by as much as 10 percent in a single year without getting approval from the Higher Education Policy Commission. The law also states that increases may not exceed 21 percent over a three-year period without HEPC approval. Before 2017, the annual cap was 5 percent.
As noted in the article, the average four-year college tuition for in-state students has increased 57 percent in the past decade. It's gone up 21 percent in just the past five years and now stands at $7,500 this academic year. Meanwhile, West Virginia's median household income over the past decade has increased only slightly.
Which brings us to the second reason: Many students have to borrow money to attend higher ed. Schools have few incentives to rein in student borrowing. They can add programs and bureaucracy and sports and build buildings and figure they merely need to increase tuition by 21 percent over three years. The costs get passed along to students.
Marty Becker, a member of the West Virginia University Board of Governors and a member of the Blue Ribbon governance subcommittee, said, "I don't think any board of governors is going to increase tuition more than they absolutely have to because they know that it has a detrimental impact on enrollment of students.
"I think there is some marketplace constraint that you have to rely upon, as opposed to an artificial standard."
A 21 percent increase over five years shows that students are still willing to borrow whatever amount they need to obtain that degree, so West Virginia's higher ed system has not yet hit that marketplace constraint. Do we really want to find it the hard way when students are priced out of the system?
The third problem: The West Virginia Legislature. Raising the annual cap on tuition increases in 2017 allowed the Legislature to reduce its support of higher education. It in effect gave lawmakers cover to cut funding because students were willing to borrow money to make up the difference.
The public expects much from higher ed. Until recently higher ed had a near-monopoly on career training after high school. The West Virginia college and university system now has competition from the community and technical college system. At one time the CTC schools operated as divisions of the four-year schools, but they were separated several years ago.
The CTC system offers degrees and certificate programs that are more vocationally oriented than the HEPC system. At the same time, there is growing recognition that a four-year degree does not mean a person will earn more than a blue-collar worker. When a welder makes more than a teacher, or when stories get around about debt-ridden college graduates making less than a debt-free electrician, people get the idea that there are other options.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. Our economy needs blue-collar workers as much as it needs white-collar ones. Options provide competition that the university system needs.
Where the marketplace constraints Becker mentions kick in has yet to be determined. But legislators need to think of students first, then the university system. Schools need restrictions on what they can charge. Removing these restrictions would be bad for students and bad for West Virginia.