Like higher education institutions all over the country, West Virginia University is adjusting to a post-pandemic reality that dovetails with other agents of change. There is a decline in the college-aged student population as well as a lower college going rate. Recent trends show that more students are questioning the value of the four-year degree. 

In West Virginia, about 46% of 2022 high school graduates entered college, down from nearly 55% in 2011. And the national narrative of whether a college education has value continues as a recent New York Times report shares that today almost one-half of U.S. parents do not believe their children need a four-year college degree.

In addition, the University faces rising financial costs while delivering a learning experience that students want. Today’s WVU students need more than a nice classroom. They need stability after a chaotic high school experience. They need services beyond what other generations of Mountaineers required including better health care, more access to mental health services, high-speed internet, more communication on various channels, more financial resources and more places to study where they aren’t confined to their residence halls and apartments.

The college environment is much different than it was 20 years ago, and it has substantially shifted coming out of the pandemic. President Gordon Gee has often said universities must change or become irrelevant.

“Land-grant universities must evolve with the needs of those they serve,” Gee said. “Change is difficult, and we in higher education often embrace inertia rather than risking criticism. At West Virginia University, we are setting the foundation to be the modern land-grant university. By doing so now, it will lead to improved student success, increased retention, higher graduation rates and a pipeline for our students into thriving careers and a powerful, supportive alumni network.”

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Changing Course

When Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Maryanne Reed stepped into Stewart Hall in 2019, a “demographic cliff” that would drop enrollment was already predicted for 2026. The pandemic accelerated that drop in both first time freshman applications and student retention. In December 2020, President Gee issued a charge that the University undergo a transformation, particularly in academics, as the University prepared for a post-pandemic world.

The University had been in a state of transformation for years, primarily affecting non-academic units. Previous budget challenges had been managed through staff position reductions, a voluntary retirement incentive program and reduction of expenses such as travel and printing.

In January 2021, the Office of the Provost began Academic Transformation by analyzing data in priority areas including academic program portfolio review, academic restructuring, academic efficiencies, student success, faculty rewards and recognition and online academic offerings. Some of the initiatives to evolve from that work included the merger of two colleges to create the College of Applied Human Sciences, the development of an Interdisciplinary Incubator and streamlined processes around course planning.

But this spring, the University was facing a $45 million structural budget deficit born out of lower total enrollment, higher graduation rates and higher costs of goods and services. WVU’s Board of Governors directed the University to reposition itself today so that it can be a responsive, relevant university system of the future. This included accelerating the academic program review.  

“The ability to change is going to be the key to our success in the future,” Reed said. “I believe people need to be more comfortable with the idea that things are going to change on a more regular basis in the world in which we live right now. And academe is not immune from that.”

After several months of difficult conversations, the WVU Board of Governors approved recommendations for 25 academic units during its September meeting that included both reduction of activity or program closure.  

In his October State of the University address, Gee acknowledged the costs the process had come to bear. For those students in affected programs (fewer than 1% of the undergraduate population), the University worked with each student to ensure they had a path to graduation. For faculty in the affected programs, the University provided severance packages, outplacement services and mental health resources.

“When we began this process, we knew it would not be easy. That has proven to be true. We may not agree with some of the decisions that were made, but collectively, I know and trust that we will find a way to move forward together.”


— Provost Maryanne Reed

Moving Forward

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Gee’s vision for moving forward is for West Virginia University to become the modern land-grant University. But what does that mean, exactly?

“It means we will always respect our origins, our founding mission and our role in our nation’s history and growth,” Gee said. “But as the modern land-grant university, we recognize that the 21st century is vastly different from the 19th century. Our needs have changed. There are new external forces bearing down. Society has evolved and thus, their expectations for a university-educated citizenry and workforce has evolved, as well.”

To evolve, the University will focus on four priorities.

four university priorities: Expanding access to education by improving recruitment and retention and raising more funds for student scholarships. Advancing the R1 mission to deliver solutions to real-world problems. Growing the academic medical center to improve the health of our people. Remaining the economic engine of the state by partnering with industry.

The priorities will be framed within the University’s Four Pillars of Education, Health, Prosperity and Purpose and through the lens of its First Principles of Students First, Land-grant Mission and Differentiation.

“In the simplest of terms, we are going to focus on the needs of our students and our state,” Gee explained.

Gee stressed the University would continue to focus on current academic and research strengths such as energy, forensic science, neuroscience and the outdoor economy. He also said there are several areas where WVU could excel with some investment including robotics, cybersecurity, sustainability and the Appalachian culture and arts.

The University will continue to invest in student success efforts such Career Services, more financial aid, the Purpose Center and services that increase retention. In 2022, the University’s freshman retention rate rose to 81.8%, the University’s second highest retention rate ever. It was only higher during the pandemic when the University adjusted some academic rules considering the unique circumstances.

WVU also improved graduation rates, demonstrating a 14% increase in four-year-graduation rates over the last eight years – a huge leap forward. It means students are graduating sooner and entering the job market sooner, carrying less debt. 

Currently, WVU has one of the lowest tuition rates in the country, and 45% of WVU graduates leave with zero debt. The average federal student loan debt for WVU May graduates earning a

bachelor’s degree across all campuses was about $20,000 – well below the national average of more than $30,000. Gee wants that loan debt to be even lower.

“We must be cognizant of the financial burdens our students carry,” Gee said. “We need to provide a path for our students where they can pursue their degrees without worrying if they can buy food for the next week.”

Gee is also concerned about graduates being employed upon graduation. While he aspires to provide a job for every graduate, he is working on developing pipelines to employment within the state, particularly in the field of healthcare.

“We are currently developing a partnership with WVU Medicine to create unique academic pathways to a variety of medical fields that would guarantee job placement in one of our 24 system hospitals around the state,” Gee said. “We are in desperate need for certain medical professions and occupations, and we will fill that need with our graduates.”

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Improving the health of a state

West Virginia has the highest cancer death rate, the highest fatal overdose rate and the second lowest life expectancy in the U.S. due to heart disease, cancer, COVID-19, accidents and unintentional injuries (including drug overdoses), chronic lower respiratory diseases (from tobacco and air pollutants), diabetes, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.   

As the state’s Land-grant University, WVU has a special responsibility to its citizens and a duty to focus on solving the tangible health problems they face by educating the future workforce of healers and scientists. The faculty and staff of WVU’s Health Sciences Center are central to the medical care provided by the university’s clinical partner, WVU Medicine, and for innovative research and discovery in the areas of cancer, neurosciences, heart and vascular, and critical care and trauma.  

“Our purpose at WVU Health Sciences is to improve the health and well-being of everyone we serve for a hopeful and healthy West Virginia, and that starts with building a strong foundation for our faculty, staff and learners to discover and solve the health problems that persist in our state and to care for and heal the people in our communities,” Dr. Clay Marsh, chancellor and executive dean for health sciences, said.   

The need for health professionals, especially in the rural areas of the state, is rapidly growing and evolving. WVU is responding with fast-track programs such as the Mountaineer Accelerated Track to Enter Residency where select medical students can graduate in just three years, instead of the typical four, allowing them to finish with less debt and begin their residency training earlier, and a direct pathway for licensed practical nurses to earn their Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree with the instructional portion taught online and the clinical, simulation and skills portions offered on convenient weekend days.   

Advancing the R1 mission

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Fred King, WVU’s vice president of Research, is a self-described optimist. King is also ready to face suppositions that WVU will lose its R1 status with the very foundation of a researcher — data. King focused on two key factors in earning the Carnegie Classification if Institutions of Higher Education R1 designation: expenditures and PhD production. His findings give him confidence that WVU will retain its much sought-after place as a premier research institution.

“Research expenditures, external or total, will hit 98%; we’ll retain $208 million of $214 million,” King explained. “Most of the programs that were terminated don’t bring in substantial research dollars. Of the graduate programs WVU retained, we’ll still generate 161 PhDs instead of 180.”

King said the next R1 evaluation is next year, and the data for that round was submitted prior to the budget restructuring at WVU. With the subsequent evaluation four years from now, King believes WVU’s key areas of study in artificial intelligence, robotics and neuroscience will generate more PhDs and more research dollars.

In the years ahead the American Council on Education will rate colleges and universities on societal impact. King believes WVU will score even better on that metric because of how much the University benefits the people of West Virginia, particularly through medical research in a state plagued with high cancer, obesity and heart disease rates. King said the state’s contribution of $50 million to support investment to attain National Cancer Institute Designation is important.

A first for West Virginia, the goal is to place the WVU Cancer Institute in the top 2% of cancer centers nationwide, improving the health and wellness of the people in the state, particularly in southern West Virginia, by reducing cancer occurrence rates and increasing cancer survival.

“We’re going to be in a good position as an institution,” King said. 



Creating a culture willing to change

As WVU begins to chart a course on more solid financial footing, Reed’s focus is to create a culture where people are ultimately excited about change, are willing to bring their own ideas to the table and can be active participants in their own destiny. National media coverage, while not always complimentary of Academic Transformation, was also, to Reed, indicative of the fact that WVU is the first institution to face its budgetary woes by making hard decisions. 

“First is sometimes an uncomfortable place to be,” Reed said. “It’s always easier to be second or third. And I believe other institutions will follow what we’re doing. They’ll want to get ahead of the changes that need to be made rather than to sit and have those changes thrust upon them. I think over time people will see that it was the right thing to do.”

When the dust settles, the ever-positive Gee sees a stronger University that will continue to attract students who are curious to explore their purpose in the world, as well as a campus community – including alumni – who are eager to share how the university made a difference in their lives. 

“Over the past several months, our decisions have been challenged, and quite often, misconstrued,” Gee said. “And we have been compared to other universities. The reality is the only competition we have is with ourselves.”

Gee believes it will take everyone – including alumni – moving forward to provide the students with a well-rounded, relevant and meaningful experience for all.

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“It is up to us to create the higher education experience students want,” Gee said. “We will give them the foundation they need for bright futures in the careers they desire, and we will do that on a more solid financial foundation because we had the courage to meet this challenge head on.”