The West Virginia House of Delegates passed 91-9 Thursday the bill that could exempt more West Virginia public four-year colleges from state oversight of their spending on things like multimillion-dollar buildings and new academic programs.
If Republican Gov. Jim Justice signs Senate Bill 760, it will likely free Fairmont State, Shepherd and West Liberty universities from that supervision immediately.
The state’s larger colleges were exempted in a 2017 bill, so the new bill would leave Bluefield State College, Concord University, Glenville State College and West Virginia State University as the only four colleges that would continue to require state Higher Education Policy Commission approval for this spending and for creating possibly duplicative academic offerings.
Under this bill, colleges would have to meet any three of these five criteria to earn exemption:
- A six-year graduation rate of at least 45% on average over three years;
- A retention rate, meaning the proportion of first-time, full-time freshmen who return for a second academic year, of at least 60% on average over three years;
- Not having an enrollment decrease of more than 5%, not including high-schoolers taking college classes, over three years;
- At least 50 days cash reserved for operations on average over the past three years; or
- A Composite Financial Index (CFI) of not less than 1, as determined by audits.
According to a Gazette-Mail review, Fairmont State, Shepherd and West Liberty currently meet at least three. The bill does leave up for interpretation how to count some of these criteria.
Schools that don’t currently meet enough criteria might meet them in the future and earn exemption. Alternatively, a school not meeting any criteria could persuade the Higher Education Policy Commission to grant exemption, and the commission could grant it, under the bill.
Delegate Andrew Robinson, D-Kanawha, noted on the House floor Thursday that Shepherd’s days cash reserved for operations have greatly dropped over the past three years.
“I want to make sure when we provide $275 million to our four-year institutions that we aren’t sending it to people without the qualifications to handle that type of money, make sure they’re providing true education to the students enrolled in our institutions and also make sure they’re doing it in a fiscally responsible manner,” he said.
Delegate Andrew Byrd, D-Kanawha, expressed concern over the state suffering if a college defaults on repaying debt related to a building project.
House Majority Whip and former House Education Committee chairman Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, rose to speak in favor of the bill, which he said puts “in place some reasonable criteria so that we can use that to govern those decisions with regard to exemptions.”
Each college has its own Board of Governors. The Higher Education Policy Commission is the agency that’s supposed to oversee four-year colleges from a statewide perspective.
Justice’s separate Blue Ribbon Commission on Four-Year Higher Education, which disbanded in early 2019 without producing a final report, had contentious discussions over proposals to replace or change the Higher Education Policy Commission (HEPC) into primarily a service agency with less oversight.
Current House Education Chairman Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, said that “there’s been discussion over the years, and actually during the interim time we had meetings about schools wanting exemptions from HEPC regulations.”
“There was the decision: Do you continue HEPC, do you get rid of that, do you have some type of regulation?” Ellington said. “I think this was more of a consensus to say let’s set some rules for schools that could meet certain criteria.”
The only no votes were from Delegates Robinson; Byrd; Jeff Campbell, D-Greenbrier; Caleb Hanna, R-Nicholas; Cindy Lavender-Bowe, D-Greenbrier; Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha; Rodney Pyles, D-Monongalia; Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha; and Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia.