A legendary former four term governor of Ohio, James Rhodes, once bragged that he was placing a state university within 30 miles of every resident of the Buckeye State. The goal of providing access to colleges dominated American higher education policy in the mid-20th century, but we are now reaping the consequences of a system of too many mediocre colleges teaching too few things of value to too few well trained students at too high of a price.
To make the point, lets talk about West Virginia. The Mountaineer State has barely 1.8 million persons; population has fallen in the 21st century, and attendance has similarly declined at state universities in recent years. West Virginia has 11 public four year colleges and universities, only two fewer than neighboring Ohio, a state with six times the population. West Virginia has the highest unemployment rate of the 48 contiguous states, the second lowest per capita income and the lowest percent of those over 25 years old with four year college degrees or more. Therein lies a paradox: public colleges are everywhereroughly one for every 2,000 square miles and 160,000 personsbut relatively few graduates.
Most of the public schools are very smallsix have fewer than 2,500 enrolled. Only two schools have at least 5,000 students, of which one, West Virginia University (WVU), is the only true comprehensive university, with over 28,000 students and a decent if not spectacular reputation in many academic areas, being ranked 406 on the Forbes list of 660 best colleges (the only other true university, Marshall, has about 13,000 students and is better known for football than academic prowess; Forbes does not even rank it). West Virginia is one of four states (Alaska, New Mexico and South Dakota are the others) with no school listed in the top 500 college list of the Wall Street Journal.
Data from the U.S. Department of Educations College Scorecard show that West Virginia higher education has often been a very poor investment for students. Only one school, WVU, has more students who actually graduate rather than dropout (or at least dont graduate within six years). It is also the only school where the average annual earnings after leaving the university exceeds $40,000. At two schools, Bluefield State and West Virginia State, average earnings are less than $30,000 a yearless than what a recent high school graduate making $15 an hour earns.
Questions abound. If higher education is a key to economic prosperity, why does a state with so many publicly supported colleges have such low incomes and relatively few job opportunities? What is cause and what is effect? Is West Virginia poor because it has relatively few college graduates? Or, does it have few graduates because it is poor? Or, more provocatively, is the poor quality of higher education, especially at the non-flagship (WVU) schools, contributing to the states ranking at the bottom of states in terms of economic opportunity and quality of life?
I dont have a definitive answer to the questions posed above, but reject the argument that West Virginia is poor because of very limited access to higher education on two grounds. First, as stressed above, the Mountaineer State has an abundance of accredited four year colleges that charge in-state fees below the average prevailing nationally. Second, the relationship between state appropriations for higher education and economic growth is weak to non-existent. While the notion that spending money on higher education promotes growth is an article of faith with public university presidents, the evidence supporting it is pretty weak. That is not surprising when one considers that taxes are imposed on a highly competitive and efficient market-disciplined private sector to fund schools that are notoriously inefficient, with per student costs far higher than in most other nations.
It is probably true that higher education matters but not true that higher education alone matters. West Virginia is poor for a variety of reasons relating to its resource base (such as the declining acceptability of coal on environmental grounds), culture (the negative consequences of a high reliance on public assistance), and other factors. Perhaps, however, some rethinking of higher education is in order, eliminating some of the weaker institutions while strengthening its moderately well regarded flagship university. Put dollars where kids graduate and get decent jobs.