Last Word

February 4, 2011 - Volume 31 Issue 7

Last Word

“The wide world is all about you; you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot fence it out.” – J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973), British writer and author of the richly inventive epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings.

By Patrick Crane

In West Virginia, for every 100 high school freshman, only 17 will earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree within 10 years.[1] Approximately one-quarter of those 100 students will drop out of high school. Thirty students will graduate from high school, but will not enroll in college. Of the 43 students that do go to college, only 28 will return for their sophomore year. Of those 28 that return, roughly 60 percent of them will earn their college degree within five more years of study.  

This data, prepared by the National Center on Higher Education Management Systems, helps illustrate where some of the leakages are in the education pipeline in West Virginia, and around the country, with the greatest number of students leaving the system before high school graduation and in the transition to college.  

West Virginia ranks 35th in the country in terms of moving students through from ninth grade to college completion, with a national average of 20.5 college graduates for every 100 ninth-graders, and a range that goes from 32 college graduates per 100 ninth-graders in Massachusetts to single digits in Nevada and Alaska.  


“Leaks in the education pipeline.”
 The leaks in the education pipeline, combined with higher out-migration of college graduates than in-migration has caused West Virginia to be the state with the lowest percentage of its population with a bachelor’s degree or above, 17.1 percent compared to a national average of 27.5 percent and a regional average of 25.3 percent.[2]    


20,000 new jobs will require some “advanced training.”
Increasing the number of West Virginians with high quality certificates and degrees is essential to the economic and social future of the state. Many of the jobs that used to be available for those with a high school diploma now require advanced training and skills. A recent study by labor economists at Georgetown University suggests that by 2018, 20,000 new jobs in West Virginia will require some amount of college education and 49 percent of all jobs will require some advanced training beyond high school.[3]

Not only is education important for economic competiveness, but research has shown that higher levels of education are correlated with better health, lower levels of criminal activity, and higher levels of civic participation.  

President Obama, with support from other political leaders, has set the goal of bringing the United States back to its former position as the country with the highest proportion of college-educated citizens.  


“Significant progress” made toward increasing workforce education levels. 
Reaching that goal will require the United States to increase the proportion of Americans with college degrees and certificates to 60 percent or greater. We are currently, and have been for many years around 40 percent. In West Virginia, significant progress has been made in increasing the education level of those entering the workforce. Census data shows that while only 25 percent of West Virginians age 55-64 have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, 34 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds have a college degree.[4]   

As we can see from the data on the educational pipeline, there are a number of challenges to increasing the number of college graduates in West Virginia. One important task is to make sure students and families have the information they need to make informed decisions about where to go, what to study, and how to pay for their education.
In order to provide easier access to this information, the website for the College Foundation of West Virginia,, was launched in October 2009. The website enables middle school students, high school students, and adults to explore college and career options, apply to college, and find financial aid.  

Providing this information is especially important because many students and parents do not know what it costs to attend college or how much federal, state, and institutional financial aid is available to them. Since it was launched, over 50,000 individuals have created profiles and over 22,000 college applications have been submitted through the website. 


Once students are enrolled in college, they need to start taking college level courses as soon as possible. Currently, 29 percent of all students who enter West Virginia colleges need some amount of developmental education, and the number rises to 62 percent in the community and technical colleges.[5] The faster students can move into credit bearing classes that count towards graduation, the more likely they are to graduate. To make the transition from high school to college smoother for students and to decrease the need for developmental education, representatives of the West Virginia Department of Education and the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission have begun meeting to better align the expectations of high school and college level educators. Work has also been taking place at both two- and four-year institutions to redesign developmental education courses.


Adult Learners. 
In addition to the traditional age students that enroll in college after high school, special attention needs to be paid to the 173,000 adults with some college but no degree in the state. In order to help these students finish their degrees, the Higher Education Policy Commission created the RBA Today program to identify these adults and provide information about this flexible, accelerated degree program for adults.  The Commission was also successful in applying for competitive grant funds from the Lumina Foundation for Education to help develop programs and courses that provide greater support to adult learners who would like to finish their degrees.


College Completion Task Force. 
Finally, to increase awareness of the issue, Higher Education Policy Commission Chancellor Brian Noland and James L. Skidmore, Chancellor of the Community and Technical College System of West Virginia, have put together a College Completion Task Force, chaired by West Virginia University President James Clements and Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College President and First Lady Joanne Tomblin.  

This group will bring together business, labor, faculty members, K-12 representatives, college administrators, and students to help develop goals and strategies for meeting the challenges of increasing college completion rates. 


“Pieces in Place.” 
Although there is a long way to go, the pieces are in place for West Virginia to dramatically increase the number of students that are earning college degrees and certificate. Continued collaboration between educational agencies, clear goals, and targeted programs to reach those goals will help strengthen the state moving further into the 21st century.



[1] National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (2009). Student Pipeline - Transition and Completion Rates from 9th Grade to College – 2008. Retrieved from:
[2] U.S. Census Bureau, 2005-2009 American Community Survey.
[3] Carnevale, A., Smith, N., Strohl, J. (2010). Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018, Carnevale. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce,
[4] U.S. Census Bureau, 2005-2009 American Community Survey. Public Use Microdata Sample, author’s calculations.
[5] West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, 2010.

Crane is Research and Planning Analyst for the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission