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W.Va. higher ed. gets F's, D's for work-force prep

By John Raby

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A report gives West Virginia's four-year college and university system a failing grade for the way its graduates fare in the labor market.

The report, released by the Institute for a Competitive Workforce, a nonprofit affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said West Virginia is among four states that received an "F'' for not meeting employer demands for four-year institutions. Two-year colleges fared slightly better, earning a "D." The report said bachelor's degree holders in West Virginia earn only $12,700 more and have an unemployment rate only 2 percentage points lower than high school graduates. Workers with associate's degrees earned $7,600 more and their unemployment rate was 1.5 points lower than high school grads.

"It seems intuitive that if the labor market is flooded with low-quality degrees or degrees in disciplines that do not match up with employer needs, graduates will have a more difficult time finding a job that pays well,'' the report said. "In a labor market where the production of skilled graduates matches up well with employer demand, we would expect that degree holders will be both more likely to be employed and able to command higher wages.''

In January, the state Higher Education Policy Commission and the West Virginia University College of Business and Economics issued a study saying most public college graduates in the state's 2010 work force studied subjects that reflect the state's changing needs. It said 66 percent of graduates concentrated in business, education, health care, liberal arts or engineering.

The latest report said the state does a poor job of retaining and graduating its four-year students within a six-year period. It also gives the state a low mark for its "highly restrictive'' barriers, with a burdensome approval process for innovative higher education providers.

In 2009, four-year public colleges in West Virginia had a retention rate of 72 percent. Only five other states fared worse. And it was one of 17 states that graduated fewer than half its four-year college students, the report said.

The state higher education system also was criticized for not linking institutional funding to student performance. Nineteen states have some form of this performance-based funding.

The report also said a state network for online programs needs to feature individual course offerings at two- and four-year colleges. And while colleges are required to test a small, representative sample of freshmen and seniors to evaluate student learning, the results aren't made public.

Earlier this month, a task force organized by the HEPC and the West Virginia Council for Community and Technical College Education released a plan that aims to make college graduation a priority, reduce the time it takes to earn a degree, improve remediation courses, increase adult graduation rates and link funding to college graduation rates.

HEPC Chancellor Paul Hill said Thursday the Institute for a Competitive Workforce report "is one of many attempts by national organizations to assess the level to which higher education serves various stakeholder groups.''

Hill reiterated the task force's plan while acknowledging the report card's criticism of the state system's regulatory process.

The West Virginia Legislature increased state oversight of higher education, including private colleges and universities, with a 2011 measure that will require them to provide information annually about their performance. The state can revoke a school's authority to issue degrees for failing to provide such information or if the data shows it's not meeting minimum standards.

"The commission monitors institutions to ensure consumer protection for the state's citizenry -- such work protects and promotes students above all else,'' Hill said. "The commission will exercise increased oversight of any and all institutions operating or planning to operate in West Virginia, in response to recent legislation calling for a new level of protection for our students who are pursuing their dreams of a better tomorrow."


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