For Bob Wise, investing in higher education is West Virginia’s best hope at rejuvenating its economy.
The former governor, who now heads the Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington, D.C., said education is “currency” in today’s information-based economy despite only 26 percent of the state’s working-age adults having at least a two-year degree.
“College education isn’t a luxury anymore,” Wise said. “It’s a necessity to have a good workforce.”
According to a 2013 study by Georgetown University, West Virginia colleges and universities need to produce 20,000 more graduates by 2018 to sustain the state’s economy. The study also speculated that 51 percent of jobs in the state will require an associate degree or higher by 2020.
“Regardless of what field (in West Virginia) you want to go into, you need some postsecondary education,” Wise said. “As policy makers, we need to look at how we invest to make this happen.”
That realization is part of the reason Wise put so much effort into getting the Promise Scholarship funded in 2002 when he was governor.
The prospect of getting a free ride to college proved so popular with high schoolers that more and more students put in the work to meet the scholarship’s requirements. Because of that, more students than expected qualified for the Promise, which drove the cost up more than the Legislature expected.
To stymie the costs associated with so many qualifying students and rising tuition, the Legislature made the scholarship requirements more strict
Surprisingly, even more students qualified.
“That’s the kind of problem you want to have,” Wise said, later adding that the purpose of the Promise wasn’t to give students a free ride, but to encourage them to excel in school.
Much has changed in the 12 years since then.
In 2009, the Legislature voted to cap the promise at $4,750 so it could ensure the program could remain adequately funded. The only problem is that the average tuition in West Virginia has doubled from a mere $2,868 in 2002 to more than $6,000 today.
Wise said raising the requirements was a smart move, but he likens capping the amount to “chipping away at it.”
“It’s not a full promise anymore,” Wise said. “The ability to say to students ‘your state thinks so much of you that you can get full tuition if you work hard’ speaks a powerful message.”
The Promise still covers almost 80 percent of tuition in West Virginia. Still, Wise is wary of the reduction of funding to the Promise and the lack for higher education as a whole.
“I don’t envy the Legislature, governor or education officials,” Wise said. “But it’s critical for policy makers to recognize how to give students the best possible access to education.”
Wise said President Barack Obama’s order to let college students pay back school loans at rates more relative to their income is a good start, but said it’s not enough. He said more money needs to be directly invested in higher education.
“I have done revenue analyses,” he said. “If you give students the ability to get more education, the money you invest will come back to you in taxes.”
One of the hopes in administering the Promise is to keep residents in West Virginia, but only 62 percent of Promise scholars remain after finishing their education, which has raised questions about the scholarship’s merit.
While not ideal, Wise doesn’t see that as being a negative. He said people may leave the state for a job after college, but many return later in life.
Wise, who still works with Legislators and education officials in West Virginia, said they are aware of the need for investing in higher education, but they also need to remember there are long-term returns that may not be evident until years later.
“I still think the Promise is one of the most important economic drivers in West Virgina.”
Contact writer Samuel Speciale at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4886. Follow him at www.twitter.com/wvschools.