West Virginia needs to move fast if it plans on giving its educated young people a reason to stick around.

Education is often referred to as the great equalizer. One of the strongest predictors of personal income growth in the U.S. is educational attainment. This should be a cause for concern for West Virginia, which has the lowest percentage of citizens with a post-secondary degree than any state in the nation, at just 19 percent.

According to a study by Georgetown University, between 2007 and 2012, the number of jobs in the U.S. requiring a college degree grew by 2.2 million, while those requiring only a high school education fell by 5.8 million. Future job growth is projected to be nearly two times stronger in fields that require post-secondary education.

As West Virginia continues to feel the effects of the decline of the coal industry and the highest unemployment rate in the nation, investments in education seem like the clearest strategy for positioning our state for future growth.

And yet cuts to the state appropriation for higher education in West Virginia have been severe, amounting to $120 million since 2008. As a result, tuition at public colleges and universities has increased by 32 percent during that same time period. For students with limited means, college is increasingly out of reach.

Adding insult to injury is the current budget debate in the West Virginia Legislature. For the first time in nearly three decades, the Legislature adjourned without adopting a budget for the next fiscal year, which leaves all facets of state government in limbo, including our public university system. The House of Delegates has refused to adopt any new revenue measures to help close the funding gap, instead voting to cut the coal and gas severance tax by 40 percent.

For the Eastern Panhandle, there’s a tremendous amount at stake. Between Shepherd University and Blue Ridge Community and Technical College, there are nearly 8,000 students enrolled in undergraduate programs. If our state leaders prioritized investments in higher education, these schools could accelerate their role in job training, research, and innovation, and serve as an engine for the local economy.

This is not just a conversation about traditional four-year degrees. Associate degrees and certificate programs in fields ranging from information technology to agribusiness to early childhood development could be the competitive advantage that our young people need to start their own businesses and reinvest in our local community.

In addition, West Virginia could follow the lead of numerous other states that offer tax credits and student loan forgiveness programs to entice graduates to remain here to live and work after completing their education. After more than five decades of population decline, it’s well past time for West Virginia to more aggressively pursue policies that prevent outmigration.

As income inequality in the U.S. continues to grow and Millennials are faced with the possibility of being the first generation in U.S. history to fair worse than their parents, West Virginia must make strategic investments that better prepare our young people for a 21st-century economy. The ongoing cuts to higher education are penny wise and pound foolish, and will leave West Virginia in a continued race to the bottom.

 

Rod Snyder is the Democratic nominee for the West Virginia House of Delegates in the 67th district. He is president of a non-profit focused on advancing sustainable agriculture in the U.S., and formerly served as National President of the Young Democrats of America. He resides on his family’s farm in Shenandoah Junction, WV.

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