CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK) – Alderson Broaddus University is closing with a mountain of debt leaving students scrambling to make other plans. Meanwhile, at West Virginia University, students are staging walk-outs to push back against planned program and faculty cuts.
Higher education leaders say things are changing, and universities are having to adapt.
Students and employees at Marshall University celebrated a ceremonial bill signing this week on campus that authorized a $45 million investment in the school’s cybersecurity programs, including the construction of a new state of the art facility.
“It feels kind of cool to see our school move up to the top in the cyber range,” said Alisha Joseph, a graduate student at Marshall University. “I feel like it is cool getting to see our school thrive.”
But at a time when Marshall is thriving, students on some other campuses across the state are facing uncertainty.
“Right now I’m looking for other schools,” said Liz Poling, a Senior at Alderson Broaddus. “I’ll probably go somewhere local. There’s been a couple of schools reach out; I might decide to go somewhere far away.”
Students at Alderson Broaddus spent the last days of summer scrambling to decide what to do after the university announced it would be closing after getting stuck in a financial mess.
“What happened at Alderson Broaddus is that the institution got so deeply in debt without correcting what was causing them to be in debt that they were unable to continue to survive, they just got completely underwater,” said Sarah Tucker, Chancellor of Higher Education in West Virginia.
Meanwhile students at West Virginia University staged walk-outs, upset about proposed cuts to programs and staff.
“This is our lives, this is our future,” said Ella Holley, a student at West Virginia University. “We’ve made commitments based on things that West Virginia University promised us and now they are threatening to not fulfill those promises.”
Tucker said West Virginia University is doing the right thing right now.
“What is happening at WVU and at colleges all over the country right now is that institutions are seeing structural deficits within their budgets and that has a lot to do with a decline in high school graduates,” Tucker said. “At the same time colleges haven’t necessarily shrunken their operations. So what you see now at WVU is the institution correcting for those things and making sure that 20 years from now, what happened at Alderson Broaddus doesn’t happen at WVU.”
She explained that the state’s aging population means there are fewer students in the state to even consider going to college. But that isn’t the only challenge.
“All of higher education right now is facing headwinds,” said Marshall University President Brad Smith. “The enrollment cliff, a decreased interest in students wanting to go to college and the question of whether or not there is a return on investment.”
Smith said universities nationwide are going through what he calls a “reinvention phase” while trying to stay ahead of a changing tide.
“Marshall started that 18 months ago. It is called ‘Marshall for All and Marshall Forever.’ We put our stake in the ground six areas where we are going to be distinctive, with Cyber Security being one of them. You can see the fruits of that labor. Our other universities are doing the same.”
At West Virginia State University in Institute, President Ericke Cage said being nimble is the only answer as the economy changes and student demands and priorities evolve.
“I think the cost of higher education has increased significantly and I think folks are just taking a step back and doing the math and questioning the return on investment,” he said. “But there should be no question that there is an incredible value in a higher education.”
WVSU is adapting in a similar way to Marshall by training students for in-demand careers.
“We are investing in programs like nursing, we are bringing cybersecurity to the forefront,” Cage said. “We are bringing a Doctorate in Educational Leadership and a School of Agriculture to the university because we know all these things are where the jobs are and we want to make sure that our students are prepared to secure those jobs.”
Cyber security students at Marshall are buzzing about the new opportunities in front of them. But their hearts are also with peers at other schools.
“It is definitely very sad,” said Emma Meadows, a senior at Marshall studying cybersecurity. “But I think that the more we do have chances like this in the state the more that people would rather stay in the state than go out of state for another school. It’ll just keep our students here, our people here, our jobs here you know.”
While students at Marshall are celebrating the recent victory and what it means for them, they are hoping the benefits will reach beyond their campus.
“It is benefitting West Virginia as a whole,” Meadows said. “We all are together. Even though we might not all go to Marshall we are all together.”
Chancellor Tucker said one cost saving measure she’s encouraging universities to explore is the idea of sharing positions within their schools, by having one person possibly help at more than one university.
In the wake of the announced closure at Alderson Broaddus she said universities are also working together more. She said that is vital in the effort to help students meet their goals, even though they may feel discouraged right now.
“These are very specific decisions that each student is having to make,” she said. “We’d encourage that student to find out what other programmatic options might be offered at that institution, what other things the institution has to offer them. If they cannot find something that meets their needs, then I would encourage them to talk to their advisor about what transferring to one of our other institutions could look like and how they could do that successfully.”
For more information on the financial aid resources available to students click HERE.