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Retention, enrollment rates continue to plague WV higher education

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Despite some dips in enrollment, declining retention rates and proposed budget cuts, West Virginia's higher education system had a pretty successful 2012.

James Skidmore, chancellor of the Community and Technical College Council, and Paul Hill, chancellor of the Higher Education Policy Commission, told legislators at an interim committee meeting Feb. 11 that more degrees are being awarded, more adults are taking community and technical college courses and the higher education system continues to have a positive economic impact on the state.

But that doesn't come without problems.

"Those students coming into us not ready for college level work," Skidmore said. "Throughout the community college system, about 64 percent of students we bring in as first-time freshmen are not ready for college math, English, reading or all of the above."

To combat that, the council has created a Developmental Education Task Force, which is working to revamp developmental, or "remedial" education throughout the CTC system.

"I call it the quicksand of higher education," Skidmore said. "A student gets into developmental and doesn't get out."

Graduation rates among students who had to go through developmental education are low, Skidmore said, and 64 percent of incoming students must take at least one remedial course. While some of those students are first-time, incoming students, some nontraditional students end up taking remedial classes as a brush-up.

"We have those adult students," he said. "We have a considerable number of students coming back in their 20s. In a lot of cases, they just need a brush-up; they don't need a full course."

The higher education system has had some successes, however. According to Hill, 5,500 more students have entered higher education than five years ago, 155,000 students have applied for and receive financial aid and tuition rates have increased at a rate slower than neighboring states.

Retention is a problem at both two-year and four-year institutions. Skidmore said the CTC system has a retention rate of 49 percent, with a goal of 60 percent. The retention rate for the CTC system has continued to decrease, "which is obviously a concern," he said. "We have to do a better job."

Meanwhile, the HEPC is working on a college completion task force, which will look at student retention rates across the system.

"Out of every 100 ninth grade students, 72 will graduate from high school, 43 of those will enter college, which is more than 60 percent of high school graduates, but only 28 percent will enroll a second term," Hill said. Of those 100 students, only 17 will graduate from college within six years.

And while student enrollment has increased overall, the CTC system saw a slight dip last year. That could partially be because of population shifts, Skidmore told the committee.

"I think when you look at some of those areas of the state where there is a population loss … it's going to be difficult to keep those numbers up," he said.

For example, Blue Ridge Community and Technical College in Martinsburg saw an increase in population, thanks to the population growth in the Eastern Panhandle. However, Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College saw student enrollment decline.

"It's going to be more and more difficult for them to keep their numbers up," Skidmore said.

And while the number of degrees awarded in the CTC systems has increased, that may change if enrollment continues to go down.

"We'll probably see a decline in the number of graduates," Skidmore said.

"Their numbers in those regions are pretty static," he added. "They're not growing like they are in the Eastern Panhandle. So population loss — a major factor."

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