The Times West Virginian

Opinion

November 15, 2012

Building solid relationships and programs helps keep FSU, Pierpont strong

High school graduates have plenty of opportunities when it comes to deciding what to do once their diploma is in hand.

They could jump right into the workforce, whether part time or full time.

They could serve their country by enlisting with one of the branches of the U.S. military.

Or they could join the more than 67,000 other students who are enrolled in one of West Virginia’s four-year public colleges and universities.

Information released Wednesday by the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission shows that the state’s four-year public colleges and universities have a total of 67,589 students enrolled. And while the system experienced a slight overall decline from last fall to this fall — 1.1 percent — there was a five-year increase from fall 2008 to fall 2012 of 2.4 percent, or 1,613 students.

Of course, it’s not just recent high school graduates filling the seats of the state’s colleges and universities. Nontraditional students — including those who might be older than recent high school graduates, single parents, someone juggling a couple of jobs or even soldiers returning from overseas — are also heading back to the classroom to gain vital knowledge and skills to be put to use in a new career.

At Fairmont State University and Pierpont Community & Technical College, officials have reported steady enrollment rates for both institutions.

At Fairmont State, full-time equivalents for graduate stu­dents, first-time freshmen and transfer students are steady com­pared to last year. In addition, the percentage of students from Harrison, Marion and Monongalia counties is steady.

But the news gets better. The number of out-of-state and international students attending Fairmont State has risen by 25 percent. That’s thanks in part to partnerships the university has formed with international institu­tions, including three in South Korea.

“With the declining number of high school graduates within the state of West Virginia, we know it’s going to be very important for us to look at out-of-state stu­dents and international students,” Rose said. “We want to work on building those relationships and getting more students here. That’s very important.”

At Pierpont, President Dr. Doreen Larson said the headcount for this fall is 2,925 students, a decrease of about 3.5 percent from last year.

But Pierpont is seeing an increase in students who are reaching graduation — the college had 65 more students complete their degrees than it did in the 2010-11 school year. That increase should result in more state funding opportunities.

In addition, Larson said Pierpont recently launched a variety of programs tied to industry. Several have been filled to their maximum capacity.

“These programs all have internships with the companies, so they work as part of their program for the company and have the potential to get hired right into the company when they’re done,” Larson said.

The number of students in noncredit programs, such as the medical coding and billing program, shouldn’t be forgotten, and the college will continue to expand with the Advanced Technology Center, which will offer the opportunity for increased enrollment rates.

Of course, steady or increasing enrollment rates depend on the affordability of education.

The Higher Education Policy Commission says enrollment in higher education increases during difficult economic times and levels out when the economy improves. So even though enrollment in West Virginia peaked in fall 2010 during the economic downturn, Dr. Paul L. Hill, chancellor of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, pointed out that the five-year overall increase shows moderate growth in the number of people pursuing higher education in West Virginia.

Plus, Hill said the state is one of few states to invest equally in need-based and merit-based financial aid through the West Virginia Higher Education Grant Program and the PROMISE Scholarship Program.

“These significant investments by the state of West Virginia have kept the dream of a college education accessible and affordable for all West Virginians, especially first-generation, low-income students,” he said.

Increased enrollment rates and affordable education go hand in hand, and the dream of an affordable college education is one that will keep the seats of colleges and universities filled.

Luckily, that dream is within reach in West Virginia.

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