Report shows West Virginia residents have lowest percentage of college graduates in the nation

By Patrick Miller

A 2010 report by the Lumina Foundation for Education listed West Virginia as the state with the fewest college graduates among residents between the ages of 25 and 64.

Only 11.7 percent of the working population holds a bachelor’s degree, 7 percent hold a graduate or professional degree and 6.8 percent hold an associates degree. This translates to only one out of every 4 residents, or 25.5 percent of the population, have post secondary education.

In West Virginia, 19.9 percent of the population attended college but did not graduate, and 54.4 percent of the population has earned a high school degree or less.

The most educated counties in the state are Monongalia, Jefferson and Putnam, with residents with two or four year degree rates of 43.4 percent, 37.3 percent and 34.1 percent.  The least educated counties are McDowell, Lincoln and Boone with rates of 10.3 percent, 14.1 percent and 14.1 percent.

Of the states that border West Virginia, only Kentucky, with a degree rate of 29.2 percent, ranks in the bottom 10 states for education.  Maryland ranks in the top 10 with 43.9 percent of adults with college degrees, and Virginia is 11th on the list with 43.4 percent of adults with college degrees.

Rob Anderson, senior director of policy and planning at the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, attributes part of this problem to demographics.  He said census data shows there are fewer high school age students than there used to be, and although the graduation rate has held steady, fewer students are graduating.

Frances S. Hensley, associate vice president for Academic Affairs, said in the past year Marshall has been busy getting a number of initiatives underway to aid students in earning their degrees. Among these initiatives is reducing the minimum number of credit hours from 128 to 120 to graduate.  This applies to incoming students, although returning students can change their course load with the approval of their college dean, Hensley said.  Incoming students no longer take University 101, which has been replaced with a more academically rounded course.

“Students are now taking First Year Seminar,” Hensley said. “In the course, students are getting an academic class with a focus on critical thinking. In the first year seminar, students are introduced to writing intensive as well as multicultural and international thinking, plus working with ‘embedded’ librarians who help students learn to research.”

Hensley said the reasons students don’t graduate are varied.  Several students are the first in their family to go to college. Some cannot come back for financial reasons, but the culture of West Virginia may be the biggest obstacle.

“Traditionally, one could get a solid high paying job right out of high school, but that is disappearing quickly,” Hensley said.

Lumina used U.S. Census data to compile its report.  Lumina is a private independent foundation whose goal is to increase educational access beyond high school.

For the 20 percent of the working population with some college but no degree, the Regents Bachelors of Arts program helps adults with some credit hours earn degrees within an accelerated and flexible time frame.  Lumina gave an $800,000 Adult Learner Grant to the West Virginia Higher Education Policy commission to enhance this program.

“Funds will be used to enhance academic content as well as enhance campus services as they pertain to adult students,” Anderson said.  “These students often must interact with personnel during non-traditional hours due to work schedules, and issues such as this one will be addressed.”

Hensley said the benefits of education exceed just economic benefits, and contribute to people making better choices all around.  The correlation between being the least educated, but also holding the nation’s highest obesity and smoking rates are hard to miss, he said.

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