CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For the first time in West Virginia, the higher education oversight body will have sweeping authority to crack down on struggling private and for-profit colleges. On Friday, the state Higher Education Policy Commission approved a new policy that gives itself the power to demand data on student retention rates, transfer information, licensure pass rates and loan default rates from every private college operating in West Virginia. If private schools are faced with debilitating problems, the state has the authority to step in and revoke an institution's authorization to offer degrees in the state. The new policy, which would kick in by November 2013 after being approved by the Legislature, represents a dramatic expansion of power for the HEPC. Before this policy, the HEPC had authority to monitor only the 12 public and private institutions in the state.
Now, the 10 regionally accredited private colleges and four accredited for-profit institutions in West Virginia also will fall under the HEPC's purview. "This will give students more information about the management of their school," said Paul Hill, chancellor of the HEPC. "We'll be able to step in much sooner and raise issues if schools are having trouble." In 2011, the state Senate passed a bill that gave the HEPC broadened oversight powers to monitor private institutions as for-profit institutions dominated the national dialogue about higher education. But one of the biggest concerns of lawmakers was not a for-profit institution, but a struggling nonprofit private college in Beckley. Last month, Mountain State University became the first university in West Virginia to have its accreditation revoked by the Higher Learning Commission. The private school had been warned for years that it had egregious problems with leadership and program quality, but the state had no power to intervene at the Beckley-based institution. Since MSU's accreditation loss, the HEPC has been in crisis mode to help current MSU students transfer their credits and find different places to continue their educations. The HEPC's response has been reactive, but Hill hopes that this rule will make the HEPC proactive. "Some think we're over-regulating," Hill said. "But with the unfortunate situation we've seen with Mountain State University, we see what can happen without oversight." Reach Amy Julia Harris at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4814.