Budget cuts may force West Virginia colleges and universities to significantly raise student tuition, eliminate certain degree programs, lose key professors, furlough staff and reduce salaries, according to a letter from the head of the state's higher education system to state budget officials.
Higher Education Policy Commission Chancellor Paul Hill warned budget officials about what would happen if he were forced to cut the higher education system budget by 7.5 percent, or about $34 million.
To free up $85 million in next year's budget, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin ordered agencies to prepare budget cuts.
The commission has asked for an exemption from the cuts in August.
But if the cuts go into effect, "public higher education institutions will continue to fall behind their peer institutions in other states," Hill warned in a previously unpublicized Sept. 4 letter to the head of the state Department of Revenue.
Hill's letter also makes clear he has considered changing the terms of the popular Promise Scholarship. Budget cuts could force officials to "consider (pursuing) legislation that limits the Promise Scholarship to students attending the state's public institutions," Hill said.
About 8,100 students receive the Promise, which is for high-achieving West Virginians who go to an in-state college. About 1,000 of them go to private colleges or universities and not state-run institutions. Hill's tentative suggestion, if the Legislature approved it, would save about $4.5 million a year, or about a tenth of the scholarship's total cost.
In an interview published Oct. 14 in the Sunday Gazette-Mail, Hill talked about possible changes to Promise. Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Maloney seized on those remarks to criticize the Tomblin administration.
In remarks published Oct. 16 in the Daily Mail, Hill backtracked and said his Promise comments were taken "out of context" and his spokeswoman said Hill had been responding to a "hypothetical" question. Hill's Sept. 4 letter makes clear he had been thinking about changing Promise weeks earlier.
Other elements of Hill's letter amount to a litany of horrors for the higher education system if the budget cuts were enacted.
Tomblin is trying to brace the state for a slow economy and growing health care costs.
Hill's letter is a clear illustration of the stark choices officials face as the state is forced to tighten its belt.
About a third of Tomblin's currently proposed budget cuts are coming from higher education. That's because about 75 percent of the state budget is exempt from cuts - but not higher education.
State officials have been asked to trim spending by about 7.5 percent in the upcoming fiscal year. Public school funding, important health care services like Medicaid and the prison system budget will be untouched.
The state Department of Health and Human Resources, for instance, has a $950 million state budget but about $750 million of that is considered too essential to cut.
All $456 million in the higher education budget is on the table.
But colleges and universities, unlike DHHR, have an easy way to raise their own revenue: they can raise tuition.
Hill argues too much cost is already being passed on to students because of declining state support for higher education.
The Daily Mail reviewed tentative budget proposals from the higher education system, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Education and DHHR. All told, those agencies represent the vast majority of government spending.
Some agencies took the cuts better than others.