Gordon Gee thinks higher education is at a “crossroads.” If it takes the wrong turn, it will head over a demographic and financial cliff. To save West Virginia University, of which he is president, in February he announced significant cuts, including the elimination of 169 faculty positions and some 30 academic programs and departments that were either lacking enrollment or too expensive to maintain.
The plan went over poorly on campus. By a 797-100 vote, the faculty passed a resolution of no confidence in Mr. Gee, while students engaged in a steady stream of demonstrations. “STOP the Gee-llotine” read one sign. But Mr. Gee is undoubtedly correct to highlight the financial challenges his university faces. He may be the first college president to call for harsh financial measures, but he won’t be the last.
Colleges face a significant demographic challenge as the pool of future students begins to dwindle over the next several years. The annual number of U.S. births reached a generational peak in 2007 at 4.3 million, then declined to 3.9 million in 2012 and 3.6 million in 2021. Starting with the high school class of 2025, the pool of high school graduates is expected to decline by as much as 15% over a dozen years. Many colleges will have to cut programs and faculty as demand dries up.
The pandemic made matters worse. Many students decided that Zoom classes were a waste of time and money. A tight labor market made it more attractive to move directly into the workforce instead of spending thousands and incurring debt to earn a degree. Mr. Gee highlighted these factors, along with the rising cost of college and a “national narrative that questioned the value of college,” as reasons WVU would expect to see fewer applicants in coming years.
It is now obvious that state universities’ bloated academic budgets won’t survive the demographic challenges. Lawmakers are increasingly unlikely to appropriate taxpayer funds to cover the coming deficits—especially when a high percentage of students (54% at WVU) hail from out of state. In addition, nearly a quarter of the students at WVU are eligible for Pell Grants, and many more are “Promise Scholars” who get free tuition and board.
WVU predicts a shortfall this year of $35 million, equivalent to about 3% of the school’s budget, with annual deficits slated to accumulate in coming years. Mr. Gee’s announced cuts will hit programs across the board, from undergraduate majors that don’t attract students to expensive doctoral programs with little market demand, to make more resources available for programs in high demand like engineering and business.
The number of humanities and social-sciences majors has been in decline for many decades, but colleges chose to maintain those departments either because they felt they were necessary for a strong general education or because the faculty had tenure and there was no way to get rid of them. But now it looks as though the dam has broken, and many schools will have little choice but to pare back those offerings. These programs will survive at colleges and universities with greater wealth or steadier enrollments, and will undoubtedly widen disparities between elite academic institutions and “have-nots” like WVU.
Mr. Gee also mentioned West Virginia’s land-grant status as a reason for his call for a dramatic change in academic direction. The Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 established these institutions using the proceeds from the sale of federal land to fund schools that would focus on practical sciences like agriculture and engineering. Mr. Gee hopes to emphasize university programs that expand dental access to children in the state and offer more instruction to teachers on how to improve instruction in STEM fields.
He also noted the importance of “differentiation”—that is, devoting more resources to strong programs that attract more students, while cutting back weak ones.
Unfortunately, Mr. Gee didn’t propose serious cuts to administration. His proposal eliminated only one administrative position, and that was through retirement. Administrative bloat is ripe for cutting at West Virginia and elsewhere. Since 2010 per pupil spending on instruction at four-year public universities nationwide has declined 5% after inflation even as spending on administrative support dropped less than 1%.
But it will be hard to overcome the pressures to spend more on administration. Mr. Gee notes one of them: “The university has invested significantly in mental-health and safety resources over the past several years.” It has hired additional counselors and made sure they’re available 24 hours a day.
The administrators who oversee student life and “wellness” are now part of the core staff of universities, expected by students, as part of a school’s “wraparound services.” It will be hard for any college, no matter how dire its financial straits, to make reductions here. Are they more important than math professors? One would hope not. But students are the customers, and the customer is always right.