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WV Press Interview: WVU President Gee – Where have the students gone?

WVU focusing on the needs of students on campus

By Don Smith, WV Press Association

Editor’s note: This is the third and final in a series of articles from a WV Press Association interview with WVU President Gordon Gee on the State of West Virginia University. See article one and article two here.

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia University’s President Gordon Gee – and higher education leaders across the country – knew an enrollment decline was coming during the next decade, but the impact of COVID, changing student opinions on the value of a degree, and economic issues turned an enrollment decline into an enrollment cliff, and has experts wondering where the students have gone. 

In the first two articles of this series, Gee, who has more than three decades as a leader in higher education, discussed the growing budget deficit and its impact on university operations. In this, the final article, WVU’s president talks about what he says is the most important issue: The students. 

Gordon Gee

“Our students will be the first priority,” said Gee, explaining WVU’s commitment to focusing on the needs of the students attending the university. 

Gee says WVU’s pathway forward is very simple:

“We must put our students first.  Second, we must embrace our land-grant mission and the people we serve.… We are in a very small state with this large land-grant institution. We have an inordinate opportunity to impact the quality of life here in West Virginia. And, third, we must differentiate ourselves by investing in the initiatives that uniquely serve our campus community, reflect our values, and play to our strengths … that will help to attract and retain the type of students, faculty and staff that we want to have.” 

WVU students talk about what they like about WVU, what they would change at the university, about struggling with the costs, dealing with the mental health issues and other challenges facing current college students.

It should be noted that Gee didn’t make increasing enrollment the No. 1 priority, despite the facts facing WVU:

·      Current enrollment is down to 26,000 from 31,000 students since 2014

·      Projected enrollment is down to 21,000 by 2033

·      Projected enrollment-related revenue decline is $72.5 million annually by 2033

·      Projected 2024 budget deficit is now at $45 million, after a PEIA adjustment

·      Projected budget deficit is $75 million annually in five years if left unchecked

While increasing enrollment and related revenue are certainly goals, Gee said WVU must accept the reality: The data shows there are fewer students … not just coming to WVU … but going to college anywhere.

“We have to always be realistic about where we are … When there are fewer number of students, you have to deal with that reality,” Gee said.

Nationally, there are many factors contributing to the decline in college enrollment, including the state of the economy, the perceived value of a college education, and the potential students.

 One key is the fact there are literally fewer children nearing college age, a data point referred to as the “demographic cliff.”  

Harvard Business Review reports that since the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, the average number of births in the United States has fallen 20%.

The Chronicle of Higher Education notes that Demographer Kenneth M. Johnson calculates that, from 2008 to 2019, 6.6 million fewer children were born than would have been born had fertility rates held steady at 2007 levels.

The 2008 Recession impact means the worst is yet to come.

Harvard Business Review: “Tracing forward 18 years from the 2008 recession, we can anticipate a sizable decline in prospective college students beginning in 2026. So, after a long period in which prospective student numbers have grown year over year in the U.S., we now anticipate a time of contraction.”

In a 2018 report, before the COVID pandemic, The Hechinger Report, which looks at education, predicted a 15% drop in college students after 2025, with the colleges in the northeast portion of the country, where a disproportionate share of the nation’s colleges and universities are located, being the hardest hit.

Then came COVID.

A 2022 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center noted that undergraduate enrollment decreased — during a two-year period roughly corresponding to the period of the Covid-19 pandemic — by 1.4 million students, a decrease of 9.4%.

In 2022, NPR reported that higher education’s hope that students were just delaying going to college for a year during COVID — “A COVID Gap Year” — has turned out to be a myth. The students didn’t come back.

The National Student Clearinghouse found that of the 2020 high school graduates who chose not to enroll in college after graduation, only 2% ended up enrolling a year later, in the fall of 2021.

“It’s very frightening,” said Doug Shapiro, who leads the research center at the National Student Clearinghouse, during an NPR interview. “Far from filling the hole of [2020’s] enrollment declines, we are still digging it deeper. The phenomenon of students sitting out of college seems to be more widespread. It’s not just the community colleges anymore. That could be the beginning of a whole generation of students rethinking the value of college itself. I think if that were the case, this is much more serious than just a temporary pandemic-related disruption.” 

“The easiest assumption is that they’re out there working,” says Shapiro. “Unemployment is down. The labor market is good. Wages are rising for workers in low-skilled jobs. So if you have a high school diploma, this seems like a pretty good time to be out there making some money.”

Wages at the bottom of the economy have increased dramatically, making minimum-wage jobs especially appealing to young people as an alternative to college. In December, for example, jobs for non-managers working in leisure and hospitality paid 15% more than a year ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Another report published in 2022, noted an Intelligent.com survey that found many students believe they can’t afford college.

Intelligent.com surveyed 1,250 18-24-year-olds who aren’t currently enrolled in a higher education institution. Among the key findings:

·       51% of recent high school grads never attended college, while 49% of the group had enrolled, but subsequently dropped out. 

·       39% never applied to college, while 33% applied but weren’t accepted. 

·       28% applied and were accepted, but decided not to enroll. 

·       48% joined the workforce instead of enrolling in college.

When asked why they weren’t pursuing higher education, 34% of respondents said it was because they cannot afford it. Nearly a third, 29%, said college was “a waste of money.”

President Gee doesn’t challenge the enrollment data. In his State of the University address, Gee summarized the challenges WVU has been facing: 

·      A declining college-aged population

·      A lower college-going rate

·      Rising financial costs

·      A national narrative that questioned the value of college

·      Lean financial and personnel structures 

In 2020, the pandemic sent WVU home to work and study, Gee said. Everyone had to navigate how to work differently, teach differently and learn differently – all while managing the personal stress that accompanied a virus paralyzing the world. In 2022, the university experienced the “The Great Dropout,” when students chose not to return to college due to a strong job market, the rising costs of attendance and a cynical perspective on education.  

Moving forward, Gee said WVU will first focus on the needs of students who are on campus.

“We need to meet this new generation of students where they are. We also need to ensure that when our students arrive on campus, we keep them on campus. I want every student to feel they are an indispensable part of this University – that their contributions matter and make us better.”

These incoming freshmen, Gee said, have different life experiences than preview generations. They have experienced a pandemic, the related lockdown, active shooter drills, and other challenges.  

In terms of dealing with students, Gee said WVU will view student life and academic life as one in the same, noting the university’s Project 168 – the number of hours (24/7) that WVU has each week with each student. “At West Virginia University, what a student learns outside of the classroom is just as important as what they learn during class. Project 168 is a way to formally recognize this and provide a credential for extracurricular effort. The self-paced, co-curricular experience offers a minimum of 50 opportunities to engage in 10 content areas.”

Click image for more information on WVU’s Project168

Gee said educating the students isn’t the only goal at WVU.

“If the students win, then we all win…. It’s simply realizing that our students are the reason we exist as an institution. We are going to make sure they have a great experience, inside and outside the classroom, which will grow our opportunities and grow our budget issues in a much different way,” Gee explained. “… Everyone should leave the university with a sense of purpose. I want them to know the world is bigger than they are. They need to be contributors. … having a very strong purpose about who you are and what you can contribute to the wider world.”

That campus life outside the classroom and gaining a sense of purpose are reasons why Gee thinks students should go to WVU. He understands that high school students now have opportunities for jobs without attending college, but Gee said that doesn’t mean higher education is a mistake.

“I’m a strong believer that education is for everyone, but universities are not for everyone,” Gee said, adding that, no matter what your calling, a continuing effort at education is important.

“We don’t have enough plumbers, electricians, skilled workers in a number of areas. …  and I think (filling those positions) is extremely important to the health of our country. Those are not university-based jobs but they are education-based. I’m a strong believer that education is the future of the nation no matter in which niche you are finding yourself.”

WVU will be working hard to attract all students to campus, Gee said.

“Universities need to be places of free speech and all ideas should be welcome,” he said, explaining WVU should be a place of merit, of ideas, and a place of quality.

Knowing that cost is an issue and some are questioning the value of higher education, Gee is extremely proud of the new WVU Pledge, a last-dollar-in aid program for qualifying Promise Scholarship recipients, set to begin with the fall 2023 semester. 

WVU offers the additional financial assistance to incoming first-time freshmen. After all other financial aid options have been utilized, the WVU Pledge will cover remaining costs of university tuition, fees, housing and meal plans for students who meet the criteria.

George Zimmerman, assistant vice president of Enrollment Management, said, “Earning a college degree is a transformational opportunity, especially for students and their families with high financial need. The WVU Pledge shows the University’s commitment to helping students succeed and — through them — West Virginia, as a whole, fulfilling our land-grant mission.” 

President Gee said, “It is imperative that we remove as many barriers as possible to allow our brightest West Virginia students access to higher education.” 

Click image to see President Gordon Gee’s recent “Gee Mail” on WVU President Gordon Gee talk about discovering his life’s mission, his purpose, and his drive to make West Virginia University the best it can be.

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