What is the “the future of West Virginia”?

By Don Smith

Executive Director of the West Virginia Press Association

Each year government leadership offers a new economic plan in hopes of improving the future of West Virginia.

New ideas are good. West Virginians should hope everyone running for elected office thinks they have the answer, or at least a new idea. After all, when your state has been at the bottom of most national economic and social rankings for generations, the status quo isn’t the answer. We’ve spent decades proving bad can get worse.

In recent years, “the future of West Virginia” has been natural gas, tourism, free community college and elimination of state income tax.

Natural gas and tourism are definitely growing industries in West Virginia, though perhaps not as fast as expected in the case of natural gas or as revenue intensive as hoped in the case of tourism, which has been slowed by COVID.  As for eliminating the state income tax to attract new residents, well, that one is still up for debate.

The best answer? The smart money is on education.

When it comes to the future of West Virginia, education offers a life-long payoff. Education is never about the immediate benefit, but it may solve the most problems.

In fact, West Virginia’s leadership might want to increase its support of education.  

What if we make all college education free for West Virginia residents? 

Education turns our current negatives into positives. The benefits would be immediate and measurable if the state provided the “last-dollar-in funding” for all grade-eligible students:

  • Each child in the state would immediately be able to afford a college education – a positive change.
  • In a few years, West Virginia would have the most educated workforce in the nation – a positive change.
  • Our universities and colleges would see increased and stable enrollment – a positive change.
  • State funds spent on higher education would directly benefit residents of all 55 counties as well as the institutions – a positive change.
  • Every college saving plan would become disposable income – a positive change.
  • West Virginia college graduates would not have massive student loan debt – a positive change.
  • Our young people would have another good reason to consider staying and raising their families in West Virginia – a positive change.
  • Families who value education would have a new reason to move to West Virginia – a positive change.
  • Businesses and industries needing an educated workforce would have a new reason to consider West Virginia – a positive change.
  • West Virginia becomes the education state – a positive change.

If West Virginia’s goals are to improve the quality of life for our current residents, attract new people, improve our workforce and change our image, education is a win-win.

With free college, we attract new families who value education while offering the same benefit to our current residents. West Virginia parents who are struggling economically would know if their children get the grades, they can go to college and have more opportunities.

West Virginia would be more attractive to families across this nation. If we reduce in-state college costs for new residents by 25 percent each year, parents know that college is free for their children after four years of living in West Virginia. Families — with their related household spending, home and auto needs, and community involvement —  are economic drivers.

Potential new businesses and industries would find a better workforce, and their current employees would also have a reason to move here.

Can we eliminate the state income tax and provide free college education?

Probably not, but would residents – current and potential  – be willing to pay income taxes to give their children and grandchildren a free college education?  For decades, we have accepted and supported public funding of 12 years of education for our children. What if a better future for our citizens and state now requires four years of public-funded college? 

People work to afford a better life, a better house, a better community and a better state. They know being cheaper isn’t the same as being better.

If the question is how to make West Virginia better, education is the answer.

— Don Smith is the executive director of the West Virginia Press Association and a lifelong resident of the state.