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UC: Private school vs. state resources

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By several measures, the University of Charleston is the largest private nonprofit university in West Virginia.

It's first in enrollment, first in degrees granted and first in number of campuses.

It's also first in number of state-supported schools in its backyard. West Virginia State University, West Virginia University, Marshall University and WVU Tech all are nearby.

That's always on the mind of Edwin H. Welch, UC's president.

But private higher education, including UC, has challenges other than those, Welch says.

"There are real conversations about whether the business model for private higher education is broken," Welch said. "The challenge is that there are real alternatives to private higher education and there are real alternatives to traditional higher education."

Among those alternatives:

 

  • For-profit schools that can teach large groups of students in specific fields.
  • Web-based learning that is essentially free.
  • The idea that people don't really need higher education.
  • The newfound emphasis on community and technical education.

 

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has suggested his state offer two years of community and technical college education free of cost. But Welch doesn't like that idea.

"Once you do that, what do you say about the cost and the return of investing in a private institution?" Welch asked.

Of more local concern is what the Promise scholarship program has done to private schools, Welch said.

"The Promise scholarship is not an unimportant factor in private education in West Virginia," he said.

For one thing, Promise lowered parents' expectations of what they would have to spend on their children's education, Welch said. With a Promise scholarship, a student could go to a public college for free. That forced private schools to narrow the gap between their advertised tuition prices and a free education, he said.

Also, private schools had to direct financial aid away from need-based aid to merit-based, Welch said.

About 40 years ago, almost all financial aid at private schools was based on need, Welch said. Now most of it is based on merit, he said. Students who don't qualify for large amounts of merit-based aid are borrowing money and leaving school with debt, "so the people who can least take on the debt end up with it," Welch said.

"We aren't getting any more from students than we were five or six years ago," he said.

Welch said he attended a January meeting in Florida of presidents of private colleges and universities. At one panel, one president said his school decided to increase enrollment by freezing tuition for four years. Another said his school cut tuition.

"I said we've done both of those, and neither worked," Welch said.

So as the University of Charleston rearranged its financial aid program, it focused on its institutional mission and at the same time asked what it would take to attract students. As opposed to a generation or two ago, students now want to stay closer to home for higher education, and they look at the amenities a school offers, Welch said.

UC built new residence halls. It started a football team. It offered graduate education classes. It started a pharmacy school to meet a need in the state. It invested in technology to make it easier for students to do business with the university.

And in acquiring parts of the now-defunct Mountain State University, UC added campuses in Beckley and Martinsburg along with an online program.

"Replacing Mountain State allowed us to leapfrog into online education," Welch said.

It also allows UC professors in Charleston to simultaneously teach classes in Beckley. Among other things, that lowers the cost of delivering education to students, Welch said.

"The challenge for a private institution is that we're committed to individual students," he said.

Ideally, a class at UC has no more than 20 students, Welch said. While that is more expensive than having larger classes, it offers students more interaction with their instructors, and it allows instructors to point students in the direction of off-campus programs, internships and employment, Welch said.

Thus, the private school must sell the prospective student on the idea that the extra cost is worth the investment, Welch said.

Because of financial realities, fundraising is an important part of private education, Welch said. Still, schools must be careful in their fundraising, he said. Some donors want to give money to the institution for use as it sees fit, but others want to make a difference by donating money for specific purposes, Welch said. Some may want to start a new program, while others may want to donate to construct a building.

It's a hard choice sometimes for schools to ensure that the specific donations are going for sustainable projects, Welch said.

In Beckley, UC is working to cultivate funding support for the campus there, Welch said.

"It's like priming a pump," he said. "If we get started, then the community benefits from everything we do in Beckley."

UC has had some success in fundraising for its health care-related programs, such as its RN-to-BSN program in nursing, Welch said.

Enrollment at UC is up in part because of the new programs and in part because the Beckley, Martinsburg and online additions have added about 500 students, Welch said.

"But we've gone down a little on traditional university and undergraduate (students) because that's where the competition is for students," he said.

Despite the challenges, Welch expects higher education to adapt.

"Higher education has a genuine place in a culture that no one else can fill," he said.

Private schools get public help

While private colleges and universities mostly get by without direct federal help (not counting financial aid for students), government grants do find their way into private school's finances.

Most private schools in West Virginia reported receiving government grants for the 2011-12 school year.

One significant grant to a private school in West Virginia came in 2006, when then-Attorney General Darrell McGraw directed $500,000 of the state's $10 million lawsuit settlement from Purdue Pharma to the newly established pharmacy program at the University of Charleston.

"We have received money from the government in very specific situations, such as the Purdue Pharma settlement," said UC Spokesman Scott Castleman. "They are pretty rare, though. I'm unaware of any government funding we are receiving. 

"Obviously some of our staff members will apply for grants and things like that, but for the most part we are self-sufficient."