August 24, 2016

Please don't call it a you-know-what

This op-ed of mine ran in today's Gazette-Mail.

I’m not terribly superstitious, aside from certain basic scientific precautions, like knocking on wood, throwing spilled salt over the left shoulder, not rocking an empty chair, not wearing a race T-shirt until I cross the finish line, and making sure to sit down before leaving if I forgot something.

One superstition I will own up to, however, is about a phrase that nearly always brings bad luck to people trying to improve things in West Virginia.

The dreaded phrase, which I have often begged people not to use in my presence, is “It’s a no-brainer.” I’m not sure what this says about us as a state, but it seems like the no-brainers are the hardest things to get done.

Here’s an example. It is known that:

 Educational attainment at every level is associated with higher earnings and lower rates for unemployment.

 West Virginia ranks at or near the bottom among states in educational attainment.

 We are also at or near the bad end of the scale on things like poverty, low median incomes, unemployment and such.

In a rational world, if such existed, policymakers here would make raising the level of post-secondary education a top priority, which would involve supporting public higher education institutions and working to make access to them more affordable. It would be a ... no-brainer.

I’m not just talking about four-year colleges and beyond. Community college and vocational training are just as important. Harper’s Magazine recently reported in its Index that the average change in annual earnings for students who attend a vocational program at a public community college was $1,544, while it fell by $920 for those who attended one at a for-profit college.

Instead, we’ve gone the other way. Tax cuts enacted since 2007 would have been more than enough to provide free in-state tuition and fees to all students — with some to spare. The tax cuts were intended to help create jobs that never came. But with a more highly educated population, who knows what might have happened in terms of entrepreneurship and attracting outside investment?

We’ll never know.

As if that wasn’t enough, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported in May that “West Virginia has cut funding for higher education by 42.4 percent since 2008 when adjusted for inflation, a decrease of $2,060 per student.” During that time, the average tuition per student has risen by $2,135, or about the same percentage. Growth in incomes or aid hasn’t come close to closing that gap.

It gets worse.

Given the state’s budget woes, many of which were self-inflicted, it’s likely that higher education and those who would benefit from it are likely targets for more cuts. Some Republican legislators have proposed privatizing state institutions, such as the School of Osteopathic Medicine. During the budget special session, it was even proposed to zero out Fairmont State University and the WVU Institute of Technology.

Such proposals ignore not only the need for a more highly educated workforce, they also ignore the significant role of public higher education institutions in driving the state’s economy.

The WVU Bureau of Business and Economic Research recently investigated the economic impact of these institutions, collectively and individually. The methodology included factoring in direct university expenditures on goods and services; payroll and benefits; and out-of-state student expenditures, all of which circulate through local communities.

While some institutions have more of an impact than others, they found that collectively:

 The $401 million invested in state appropriations helped generate $2.7 billion in economic activity. That’s a return rate of $7 for every $1 of state funding.

 These institutions directly and indirectly supported more than 24,000 jobs statewide. These jobs had compensation of around $1.4 billion and generated around $60 million in revenue.

I’m a bit at a loss to choose an appropriate metaphor to express how bad an idea further cuts to higher education would be for all these reasons. My three top contenders would be cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face, killing the goose that laid the golden aid, or, for the biblically minded, selling our birthright for a pot of stew, like Esau did in Genesis.

In any case, cutting back on what we need more of is a bad idea.

That’s a ... nevermind.