Gee states need for cooperation

PARKERSBURG -West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee says he will look for ways to reduce costs and increase effectiveness at the college, but added state leaders must free higher education from excessive and outdated regulations.

Gee’s remarks came Wednesday during a visit to Parkersburg. Gee, who in March was appointed as WVU’s 24th president, is touring the state’s 55 counties speaking on the university’s role in economic development and the issues facing higher education in West Virginia.

Gee said he has already visited 40 counties and will reach the remaining 15 before the beginning of August.

Gee said soaring costs and high student debt are issues which must be addressed in the coming years, all while officials look to increase the quality and accessibility of higher education. Gee said he plans to look at ways to reduce costs, increase revenue and help students earn degrees.

Gee said asking for more state funds, however, is not part of the plan.

“Notice I didn’t say the state should give us more money,” he said. “I understand at the federal level and at the state, money is tight.”

But Gee said higher education must work with state legislators to free colleges and universities from some regulations which make it more expensive for higher education to operate. Gee said the university often spends a lot of time and money jumping through hoops and hiring legal experts to make sure WVU is in line with state and federal regulations.

“Much of the escalating cost is due to the regulatory atmosphere,” he said. “We need to have this conversation with our state leaders to make sure the state is deregulated.”

Even so, a big part will be the university looking at ways to tighten its own belt and do a better job delivering services to students at a reasonable cost, Gee said.

“I’m thoroughly convinced we can improve our own effectiveness and efficiency,” he said.

As an example, Gee pointed to a rule at the college which required all employees driving state-owned vehicles, about 5,000 people at WVU, to take an additional state drivers test. Gee said he was told the move saved the college money on insurance, but the savings was only $10,000.

“There are so many of these kinds of things we have to look at,” he said.

Gee also said he would be looking at the effectiveness of staff and faculty, particularly in the context of their workloads.

“I’m not certain if we have too many or too few people,” he said, “but I do know we have too many people doing too few things, so we have to recalibrate. We need to figure out how to be much more effective with the people we have.”

The university also must look for sources of revenue that do not require increasing student tuition or fees.

“We need to come up with good financial models that don’t require raising tuition,” he said.

Gee said he is unsure whether WVU would ever pursue a flat tuition system like what was announced earlier this year by Ohio University. Officials there said students will be able to lock in a set tuition rate for five years when they enroll, but Gee, who sat on the Ohio board that looked at student tuition issues and solutions, said he believes that rate will be higher than at other colleges.

“Its not about cost savings as much as certitude,” he said. “You know what to expect each year.”

Part of bringing student debt under control, Gee said, will be helping students to successfully complete programs.

“We built this wonderful admissions process,” he said. “We have a dean of admissions. We don’t have a dean of completion.”

Gee said he believes the high number of short-term students who leave without a degree is contributing to soaring student debt.

“A lot of student debt comes from a lot of students enrolling, borrowing money, then dropping out,” he said.

Becky Lofstead, assistant vice president of university communications for WVU, said the university’s retention rate is about 77 percent, which is above the national average. The retention rate measures the percentage of first-year students who become second-year students.

“It’s going to be higher,” Gee said. “My goal is to get that at about 90 percent.”

Lofstead said the college’s graduation rate, which measures the percentage of students who achieve a degree within six years, is about 56 percent. West Virginia University and it’s regional campuses serve more than 32,000 students each year.