CLARKSBURG — With more than half a dozen higher education institutions in North Central West Virginia, officials say the region’s universities and colleges have become irreplaceable to the state’s success and economic development.
The institutions, ranging from West Virginia University in Morgantown to Salem University in Harrison County, have one, crucial ingredient in common, according to John Deskins, economist and director of West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research: The quality of their graduates.
“The primary role is to make our young men and women more educated, more trained and more skilled so that West Virginia can show businesses that — if they’re thinking about moving to West Virginia — we have people who would be good workers,” Deskins said. “That would make those businesses more likely to come here.
“A business is never going to locate somewhere if it doesn’t believe that it can find the workers that it needs. Higher education institutions turn out men and women who have better skills and better training, and that then helps those individuals live richer, more productive lives and makes the state more attractive to potential businesses. It leads to a higher quality of life for everyone.”
Fairmont State University President Dr. Mirta Martin shared Deskins’ sentiment. She said higher education institutions form a symbiotic relationship with the region’s other industries, allowing for a mutually beneficial arrangement.
“We provide the product that industry needs,” Martin said. “That product is that employee, who is our student. We need to understand the needs of industry, and we need to be able to position the university to provide our students with skill sets that are needed and sought after in the industry. And we need to be able to work with these industries who see how their environment is changing so we can shape our curriculum.”
More importantly, Martin said, is that educating young adults and providing in-state jobs for them can reverse the exodus of West Virginia’s young population, which has negatively affected the state in past years.
“It’s everybody’s role to be able to grow the state,” Martin said “It’s one of my primary responsibilities to be able to attract businesses so our most precious commodity — our students and their talent — does not leave the state. It’s necessary so we can have an educated workforce that meets the needs of industry and can support and grow the needs of the state by being a part of the economic engine.”
Harrison County has several higher education campuses. While it’s home to Salem University, the county also hosts remote campuses for WVU, Fairmont State and Pierpont Community & Technical College.
Amy Haberbosch Wilson, executive director of the Harrison County Economic Development Corporation, said having so many higher education entities in the county has allowed for more job growth and economic expansion than ever before.
“When we’re looking at higher education, you look at where we are and where we want to be, and we look at our ability to educate the people we have,” Haberbosch Wilson said. “(Higher education entities) know better than us, or they wouldn’t be located here. You’re not going to put a college or university somewhere without doing the numbers.
“Salem University, for example, just where they’ve expanded in the past five years, has capitalized on the jobs and growth we want to see in this area. Those are the programs they’ve now put in place through the university. Same way with Fairmont State. Pierpont’s another good example.”
However, having a host of higher education institutions in the region does more than just bring in businesses and provide jobs for graduates.
Marion County Chamber of Commerce President Tina Shaw explained that college students’ economic impact on the area begins long before graduation.
“We’re very fortunate that we have the universities in our region, because, from a chamber standpoint, they provide a huge economic boost to any community where they’re located,” Shaw said. “Students work here and live here and spend their money here, in addition to the ones who commute in. They’re spending money while they’re here, and a lot of them will get internships and will volunteer and get involved with businesses. The communities who have a college or university are very fortunate from an economic standpoint.
“There’s opportunities for businesses to take advantage of these young students who want to enter the workforce. On top of that, universities and colleges are huge players in the community to support economic development. Their staff and their faculty also get involved in community events and initiatives, so it’s a win-win.”
Deskins agreed, and said that the phenomenon is more widely seen at and around West Virginia University.
“There’s almost 30,000 students living here in Morgantown, and there’s a whole bunch of faculty and staff members who live here to serve those students,” Deskins said. “That has an enormous economic impact in the Morgantown area. The students are, obviously, spending a lot of money on beer and food and other items in the local economy, and that does a lot to boost the regional economy.”
Beyond that, Deskins said that WVU attracts many, many students from outside West Virginia, bringing new people to the state who could very likely stick around once attaining their degrees.
“Half of (WVU’s) students are from out of state,” Deskins said. “They come in here and pay tuition and bring money into the regional economy, and that has a multiplier effect. Higher education has an extra role in that we bring people in state from outside of the state. They bring their money with them.”
Pierpont Community and Technical College President Dr. Johnny Moore said that in the near future, more than two-thirds of the country’s jobs will require some form of post-high school education.
Moore said that since North Central West Virginia is lucky enough to have several universities and colleges — each with different specialties — a wide array of options is created for students to get the exact kind of education they want, and one that’s crucial to the state’s economy.
“A lot of our students are becoming more diverse in age, race, ethnicity, wealth and family background,” Moore said. “They all have different expectations on what college can do for them. They need to reach their goals using a wide variety of means that colleges have provided for them.
“We have this huge diversity of students, so we need to give them different pathways to success. From my perspective, a good higher education (graduate) has come to grips with the world more deeply and broadly, thereby contributing to what the world has to offer. That’s the beauty of what we do.”