At a time when investment in higher education has never seemed more urgent, when the nation’s colleges and universities have assumed ever greater responsibility for “winning the future,” in President Obama’s words, West Virginia’s eight private colleges lead very public lives of service and distinction.
Although you won’t find small private colleges playing in fancy football stadiums, building huge facilities with corporate sponsorships, or shuttling students between sprawling branch campuses, the results of our work are highly visible—as evidenced by the successful careers and lives of some of America’s most prominent leaders, many of whom were the first in their families to graduate from college.
Collectively, our state’s independent colleges are 892 years old, yet as new as the latest learning technologies that bring the world to our typically small, scenic campuses. Bearing substantial responsibility for educating our citizens beyond high school, these institutions have the capacity to serve and grow without capital investment from the state, and to move quickly to respond to expectations of students and their potential employers in the global marketplace.
Our role is not to compete with West Virginia’s public colleges and universities, whose contributions to the state are important in their own right. Rather, in the words of our consortium, West Virginia Independent Colleges and Universities, Inc. (WVICU), our vision is to be “an accessible, indispensable and highly visible component of the State’s educational, economic and cultural life.” With a focus on preparing our 7,500 students for careers and lives that will change dramatically within years of their graduation, West Virginia’s private colleges are student-centered, administratively lean, and academically innovative. Most retain historic affiliations with religious denominations, and offer students personalized opportunities for intensive, residential study in liberal arts and pre-professional programs.
We work hard for our students, many of whom—as in the public higher education community—are the first in their families to attend college. At Bethany, these first-generation students make up some 30 percent of our enrollment. When I look out at the assembled high school juniors and seniors, and their families, during our campus open houses, I can detect in many faces the eagerness to make a four-year college education a milestone event in their family experience.
Many in West Virginia’s business community, along with foundations and other funders, share our commitment to student access and success through the Circle of Vision Scholarship Program of WVICU, providing essential funds each year to keep the cost of enrollment affordable to as many as possible. Since 1997, this program has funded approximately $3.5 million in scholarships to over 2,900 West Virginia students.
Our partnership with the federal government is also critically important. Pell Grants, serving over 7 million needy students nationwide, represent one of the most responsible and financially feasible investments in America’s students. We hope they will continue to be funded (at a maximum of $5,550 per student through next year) at a critical time when the percentage of American students graduating from college continues to lag behind that of some other industrialized nations.
Although small private colleges remain a well-kept secret in West Virginia, our graduates tell a truly international story. In March, Bethany will welcome back to campus as our Founder’s Day speaker Holocaust survivor and 1957 Bethany alumnus Thomas Buergenthal, formerly the American judge on the International Court of Justice in The Hague and now a professor of law at The George Washington University.
Bethany’s graduates include Greg Jordan, Global Managing Partner of Reed Smith, one of the 15 largest law firms in the world; Robert McCann, Chief Executive Officer of Wealth Management Americas and member of the Group Executive Board of UBS; Marie DeParis, Vice President of Marketing and Business Development for SNY, the official television home of the New York Mets and Jets, and the Big East Conference; Dr. Arthur Keys, Jr., founder and President of International Relief and Development, Inc., and many other distinguished alumni throughout the world.
Having attended recent meetings of various higher education organizations and consortia, including WVICU, I am struck by what a compelling case we can make for continued support of private colleges, here and throughout our nation.
According to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), our institutions nationwide enroll nearly 20 percent of all students, award approximately 30 percent of all degrees, and serve a significant percentage of non-traditional (aged 25 or older) students. We have substantial economic impact on our home communities in West Virginia—think of the small towns of Bethany, Philippi, Buckhannon, Elkins, and Mount Hope that are home to five of the state’s eight private colleges. And we’re efficient. Independent college students tend to complete their degrees on average in 4.5 years, compared with a national average of nearly 6 years for graduates at state schools.
We are lesser known than many of our bigger public counterparts, and you may have to drive along some gorgeous stretches of country road to find us, but West Virginia’s private colleges are academically vibrant and economically important. We partner with business and industry, we do research, and most of all, we teach well, focusing on the needs of the individual student in today’s complex society.
Although we are private, we do a lot of public good.