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Finding more savings in higher education budget

March 02, 2004

Pushed by the prospect of even higher deficits in fiscal 2005-2006, the West Virginia Legislature is looking at ways to squeeze more dollars out of the state's higher education budget.

After $45 million in cuts, the system is unlikely to yield the bonanza needed to cover the shortfall. But lawmakers should still resist the temptation to write college budgets themselves, as one bill proposes.

Under HB 4712, written by the House Education Committee, the four-year-old Higher Education Policy Committee would be abolished.

Instead, the trustees of individual colleges would answer only to the Legislature, which would set 10-year budget plans for each institution.

Such a proposal may sound good politically - get tough on those ivory tower spendthrifts, by golly - but it would amount to less oversight because part-time lawmakers can't be full-time watchdogs.

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More promising is the approach of SB657, from the Senate Education Committee. This bill would split the state into two regions, with two large universities - West Virginia University in the north and Marshall in the south.

All other colleges, depending on their location, would become branches of those two. It may sound like a terrible loss, but Maryland affiliated its colleges in a similar way and nothing disastrous has happened.

Still, there will be resistance, which is why the bill's sponsor, Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, doesn't envision his bill passing during the current session.

He notes that the troubles facing the system have existed for 20 years, and that it will take more than a single session to correct them.

A third approach from Gov. Bob Wise would make each college autonomous, with greater power over the ability to raise tuition and dismiss staff. It may have some merits, but few lawmakers will agree to give up any say in what tuition will cost in-state students.

Plymale's approach is the most realistic, because it would give educational professionals at WVU and Marshall oversight, as opposed to elected officials.

If this bill were about regulating dentists, no one would question the idea that the regulators should be experts in the field. That should be true for education as well. Let lawmakers set the state's budget, but don't let them micromanage West Virginia's colleges.

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