WLU airs concerns before lawmakers

WEST LIBERTY – State budget cuts are making it harder for young people to obtain college degrees in West Virginia at a time when more employers won’t let them get a foot in the door without one, West Liberty University students, staff and parents told legislators Wednesday.

The conversation over lunch at the university’s Gary E. West Events Center was part of the university’s Legislative Day, organized as a forum for students and staff to share their concerns about the future of higher education with lawmakers as they prepare for the start of the 2014 legislative session in January.

Attending the event were state Sens. Rocky Fitzsimmons, D-Wheeling, and Jack Yost, D-Wellsburg; and Dels. Ryan Ferns, D-Ohio, Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, David Evans, R-Marshall and Phil Diserio, D-Brooke.

Higher education accounts for about 10 percent of state spending, yet it is expected to absorb about half the overall budget reduction, according to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. Public education and Medicare have been exempt from the otherwise across-the-board budget cuts, and those gathered Wednesday urged lawmakers to treat higher education the same way.

Paying for college is “a challenge sometimes,” said Jeffrey Tice, vice president of West Liberty’s Student Government Association. “It’s rewarding, also. We’re striving to take our lives to the next level.”

Affordability remains one of West Liberty’s biggest selling points, according to Evan Newman, a student who works in West Liberty’s admissions office – but he’s concerned how much longer that will be the case. Aging laboratory equipment is another concern, added Student Government Association President Dennis Gooch.

Social work professor Sylvia Senften, West Liberty’s representative on the West Virginia Advisory Council of Faculty, said it’s not uncommon for faculty members to help cash-strapped students pay for books or give them gas money.

“I would love to take the students (to Charleston) to see the legislative process,” Senften said. “It’s probably not going to happen this year.”

Yost said it’s a difficult problem that lacks an easy answer. Sixty percent of West Virginia’s approximately $11 billion budget will fund education in some form, he said, while the state’s infrastructure needs are growing.

Lawmakers are reluctant to resort to tax increases to keep the budget balanced, he added.

“There isn’t anyone in the Legislature who opposes education,” Yost said. “Is there additional funding out there? It’s very difficult to know that.”

But Cynthia Rouse, whose daughter is a freshman at West Liberty, is convinced there is money available. She’s now paying on both her own and her daughter’s student loans, she said, and her son opted to postpone finishing his degree and join the military after two years at WLU due to the debt he’d accrued.

Rouse, who works in the health care industry, said she sees waste in state programs such as those intended to provide care for seniors.

“Look for a way to cut back waste, because the money’s there. … There’s no oversight,” she said.

Storch acknowledged the system isn’t perfect, noting she voted against the state budget in 2011 to protest the amount of “unappropriated funds” that agencies could spend any way they wished – and often did, she said, because left over money wouldn’t carry over to the following year. She credits Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin for taking the lead in addressing that problem over the past two years, leading to greater accountability in how West Virginians’ tax dollars are spent, she believes.

Still, Storch said, the “pie” of state revenue is being cut into a greater number of slices, and more needs to be done to ensure the state is funding only what its constitution intends it to fund.

“Our state is great at picking winners and losers,” Storch said. “We help who we want to be successful.”