Retention is a problem at Shepherd, which was recently highlighted by Katie Gayman in The Picket. The fact is a sizable chunk of students start school here, but don’t finish.
Public funding for higher education is a problem in WV. WV has cut funding for higher education across the state by more than 20% since 2008 – according to the 2014 Center on Budget Priorities report. That same report also points out that WV is one of a small number of states that continues to cut funding in higher education.
Shepherd is not immune from the state’s inadequate public funding of higher education. Already only about 15% or less of Shepherd’s annual budget comes from state coffers. This academic year an additional $400,000 has been trimmed from Shepherd’s operating funds, which follows a string of consecutive 4% cuts over the past four years – as Brooke Binns and Todd Bowman recently reported in The Picket. The remainder of the operating budget comes largely from tuition increases. As the state of WV invests less in public education, Shepherd students and their families take on more debt.
Pay is a problem at Shepherd. Higher tuition bills might lead one to believe that teachers are receiving pay raises. But that isn’t the case. Faculty pay at Shepherd has not kept up with an increasing cost of living in the Panhandle region, a fact made clear at the last Faculty Senate meeting in spring 2015. This is highlighted also by the fact that some faculty members have had to take on second jobs to make financial ends meet.
This mix of issues – decreasing retention, inadequate state funding, and low faculty pay – has created a potentially serious problem for Shepherd and it definitely poses some stark choices.
As a result of inadequate state funding and an increasing dependence on tuition hikes for basic operating budgets, pay raises hinge on retention numbers. Dips in retention mean that school employees cannot expect pay raises. The tragic and ironic outcome is that failing a student for poor grades becomes irrational. Just the opposite, it is rational to pass everyone regardless of their grade so that school budgets are met and pay raises are possible.
This situation is a perfect example of a consumer-driven model of higher education, which is divorced from the idea that education is a public good and therefore something worth public investment.
As long as this perverse situation remains, Shepherd is in a tough spot. In the worst-case scenario, the quality of Shepherd decreases and the institution becomes a diploma mill where students pay their fees, get a passing grade and eventually graduate.
This decreasing retention, inadequate state funding, and low faculty pay is a recipe for disaster.
I see at least two possible responses to this problem.
One is to toss up the white flag and go along with the prevailing political and economic winds of privatization. This would mean more flexibility in raising tuition and less oversight and funding from the state. Universities in Virginia, Florida and Texas have taken this route and won greater autonomy, but it comes at a cost. A private education is much more expensive than a public education. For example, Shenandoah University in Winchester, VA, costs an estimated $41,000 per year, including books, room and board. Shepherd presently costs half that amount or less.
A second and my preferred path is community political engagement. Students and their families, community members, Shepherd faculty, administrators and employees have a common stake in this institution’s future. Contact Charleston and let them know you think that higher education is worth public investment. Write editorials that argue for adequate funding for Shepherd. Show up to public meetings with your representatives and ask them what they plan to do about higher education. Run for office and advocate for the public good of education. Talk to your neighbors about how public education benefitted you. Basically: #makenoiseinwv about public higher education.
-Jacob L. Stump
Department of Political Science