West Virginia Budget Cuts Are a Taste of Higher Ed’s Future

James Piereson and Naomi Schaefer Riley:

Gordon Gee thinks higher education is at a “crossroads.” If it takes the wrong turn, it will head over a demographic and financial cliff. To save West Virginia University, of which he is president, in February he announced significant cuts, including the elimination of 169 faculty positions and some 30 academic programs and departments that were either lacking enrollment or too expensive to maintain.

The plan went over poorly on campus. By a 797-100 vote, the faculty passed a resolution of no confidence in Mr. Gee, while students engaged in a steady stream of demonstrations. “STOP the Gee-llotine” read one sign. But Mr. Gee is undoubtedly correct to highlight the financial challenges his university faces. He may be the first college president to call for harsh financial measures, but he won’t be the last.

Colleges face a significant demographic challenge as the pool of future students begins to dwindle over the next several years. The annual number of U.S. births reached a generational peak in 2007 at 4.3 million, then declined to 3.9 million in 2012 and 3.6 million in 2021. Starting with the high school class of 2025, the pool of high school graduates is expected to decline by as much as 15% over a dozen years. Many colleges will have to cut programs and faculty as demand dries up.