Woodburn Hall at West Virginia University. Courtesy of Swimmerguy269.
Woodburn Hall at West Virginia University. Courtesy of Swimmerguy269.

West Virginia told us back in 1863 it didn’t want anything to do with the rest of Virginia, so it’s tempting to return the favor. However, there’s a story unfolding over in the Mountain State that is worth paying attention to — both for the ways it applies to us and for the ways it doesn’t.

The short version goes like this: West Virginia University, the state’s flagship university, faces a $45 million deficit. The administration says this has been brought on by falling enrollment and has proposed what some see as draconian cuts to certain programs. Staffing in 17 different programs would be reduced and — in what has caused the most controversy — the entire world languages department would be eliminated.

It’s not my place to tell West University how to run its higher education system but, looking in from the outside, this certainly isn’t a good look for the state. Let’s face it: West Virginia doesn’t have the best reputation, so you’d think the state would want to present its namesake university as a gleaming example of excellence to counteract all the unfortunate stereotypes out there. Instead, it looks as if it’s too poor to run a university and so out-of-touch with global trends that it doesn’t care whether its students can speak other languages. And while foreign languages have been the focal point for a lot of the academic criticism, you’d think West Virginians would be more concerned about the proposed cuts to programs in pharmacy and public health.

Whether and how to pay for all that is a policy question for West Virginians to figure out, though. The more interesting thing to me — and the part that makes this relevant to those of us on this side of the border — is the demography driving West Virginia University’s budget problem.

Undergraduate enrollment in Morgantown peaked in 2012 at 22,827. Last fall, that number was down to 19,059, a drop of 16.4%. When you look broadly at graduate programs and other post-grad programs, enrollment has fallen from a peak of 29,707 in 2012 to 25,936, a drop of 12.6%. The raw numbers may not seem like much, although the percentages do. Either way, they represent lost revenue — fewer students paying tuition. Furthermore, the university is expecting to see enrollment continue to decline in coming years, for reasons we’ll soon get to. Universities are no different from anybody else other than the federal government: Budgets have to be balanced. If revenue is going down, you either have to make that up (through more state subsidies and/or higher tuition) or you have to cut expenses. They probably teach that in the management department that is slated for staff cuts.

All this is a big comedown from about a decade ago, when the school’s president — the same one as now — pledged to increase enrollment to 40,000, a goal that, in hindsight, seems completely unrealistic.

There are simple reasons why the school’s enrollment has declined:

  1. West Virginia’s population is declining.
  2. The college-age population is declining.

    The former situation is unique to West Virginia, but the latter is not. The college-age population is declining everywhere, and that’s why what’s happening next door is of interest to us. West Virginia University is a preview of what will happen in other places. Not necessarily in Virginia, but the demographics behind West Virginia University’s budget problems are playing out here, as well.

The website Vox published such an excellent account of this last year — “The incredible shrinking future of college” — that I’ll simply quote from it:

In four years, the number of students graduating from high schools across the country will begin a sudden and precipitous decline, due to a rolling demographic aftershock of the Great Recession. Traumatized by uncertainty and unemployment, people decided to stop having kids during that period. But even as we climbed out of the recession, the birth rate kept dropping, and we are now starting to see the consequences on campuses everywhere. Classes will shrink, year after year, for most of the next two decades. People in the higher education industry call it “the enrollment cliff.”

West Virginia University is falling off the enrollment cliff — and, because it’s in a poor state with a declining population anyway, it’s hard for the state to mount a rescue.

Virginia has avoided this problem. Our population is growing, just not as fast as it once was. During the time when West Virginia’s overall college enrollment was declining (and not just at West Virginia University), Virginia saw its overall college enrollment grow slightly.

In 2012, the year that West Virginia University’s enrollment peaked, Virginia’s enrollment at public four-year schools was 166,739. It peaked at 175,334 in 2019, then fell for two years, before rebounding to 172,022 in fall 2022.

That’s not to say that Virginia is immune to the underlying demographic trends, because nobody is.

In 2007, the year before the Great Recession, the United States recorded 4.32 million births. Eighteen years out — that would be 2025 — that’s roughly how many potential high school graduates we’ll have, some of whom might go on to college.

However, as Vox pointed out, the general trend line since then has been fewer births. In 2022, the National Center for Health Statistics says the U.S. had 3.66 million births. In 18 years — that would be 2040 — they’ll be of college age, but there will be 660,000 fewer of them than there were for that college-age pool in 2025. Now figure out a gap of roughly that size every year. That’s a lot fewer potential college students. It’s also a lot fewer potential people for everything — as I’ve pointed out before, this is why the labor shortage is here to stay and why businesses are looking to automate jobs that can be automated. I recently went into a McDonald’s and the counter where I once would have ordered my Big Mac and paid a cashier was gone, replaced by a touchscreen that also took my debit card. I assume there was someone cooking in the kitchen, but the only human worker I ever saw was someone who set my order on the counter. Maybe someday that role will be automated, too, with a conveyor belt. As the late football coach George Allen once said, the future is now.

The consequences of smaller birth cohorts will play out across every sector of society in ways that we’re going to find difficult to deal with, and I put that mildly. We already see this playing out in politics: We have a large cohort of baby boomers moving into retirement and starting to collect Social Security and other entitlements. We have fewer and fewer younger workers to pay into those programs. The math simply doesn’t work out — we’re either going to have to tax those younger workers more (they won’t like that) or start cutting benefits (those beneficiaries won’t like that). Some Republican candidates for president have gingerly raised the prospect of making changes to the system, but there’s a reason Social Security is called “the third rail” of American politics. No one who touches it lasts very long, yet the math is undeniable.

There’s one obvious solution to our demographic shortfall: We increase immigration, especially for young, skilled workers who can pay into those government programs that retirees depend on. That’s what Canada is doing, and while there are differences between Canadian liberals and Canadian conservatives over how much immigration there should be, they are in general agreement that more immigration is good for the economy. In the United States, though, we’re paralyzed over immigration debates, partly because we have people walking across our southern border in a way that Canada does not. We are an affluent, stable society within walking distance of poor, unstable countries; we should not be surprised at what’s happening, but we’ve been unable to come to any kind of political resolution about what to do about it.

We also see these demographic issues play out in smaller, but no less painful, ways. Lynchburg is currently debating whether to close some of its schools and which ones — not because the city council and the school board are misers who don’t care about neighborhoods but because enrollment is declining and school buildings are aging and the city has only a limited amount of money to pay to upgrade them. In Martinsville and South Boston, hospitals have closed their birthing units because they don’t have enough women giving birth to justify the expense. In Highland County, the annual Maple Queen Pageant was canceled this year because there weren’t enough entrants — partly because the number of girls in the eligible age cohorts has declined. All these things are connected and spring from the same root cause.

Back to West Virginia University and its troubles: West Virginia has 12 state-supported universities; only three are showing enrollment increases. Virginia has 15, of which eight have seen their enrollment increase while seven have seen their enrollment decline.

Sometimes the national numbers are too big to understand, so let’s narrow things down. Virginia saw 108,884 births in 2007, the year before the Great Recession. By 2021, that number was down to 95,618, according to the Virginia Office of Vital Records — and the figures for 2022, not yet released, are expected to be about the same. That’s 13,226 fewer people in some future pool of potential college students. Each year.

Virginia universities will be fighting over a smaller pool of potential students. They can make that up by admitting more out-of-state students, but those numbers will be declining, too. (Fun fact: Most of West Virginia University’s students — 53% — are from out of state, so it’s already tried that, and it still hasn’t been enough. By contrast, at the University of Virginia, 32% are from out of state. At Virginia Tech, the figure is 22%.)

Here’s the challenge in Virginia, and I’m hardly the first to point this out: Some universities in Virginia are growing their enrollment, while others are seeing theirs shrink. Are the big ones gaining at the expense of the smaller ones? That’s a question the Richmond Times-Dispatch raised earlier this year: “Are Virginia’s big colleges driving small ones out of business?

For instance, Radford University’s undergraduate enrollment peaked at 8,913 in 2013 and was down to 6,008 last fall — a drop of 2,905, or 32.5%.

Meanwhile, during that same time Virginia Tech has grown from 24,043 to 30,434 — an increase of 6,391, or 26.5%.

Now, we can’t say that those students turned down Radford to attend Virginia Tech. Maybe some did, but we all know the world is more complicated than that. Still, if Virginia Tech hadn’t grown by 6,391 students during that time, those 6,391 students would have gone somewhere. Where would they have gone? Somebody somewhere lost out, whether that other school was in-state or out-of-state or perhaps even overseas.

This fall, we’re seeing some schools announce record enrollments. Roanoke College just welcomed its largest freshman class since 2019. George Mason University now has its largest freshman class ever and a state-record on-campus total enrollment of 40,000. We won’t know until later state releases enrollment data later this fall what the big picture is. Are these schools growing while others are shrinking? Colleges are always quick to call attention to growing enrollment but not many put out press releases admitting enrollment is down.

In the years ahead, we’ll see more situations like the one West Virginia University is facing. We may not face them in Virginia to the same degree, but the underlying demographic trends will be felt here nonetheless. Demography is destiny and math is math. Unfortunately for West Virginia, the math department is one of the programs slated for staffing cuts, so some there may have to learn the subject the hard way.

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org...