West Virginia has spent millions on Guard education
Charleston Daily Mail, W.Va.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia has spent more than $5 million since 2005 so that members of the state National Guard could attend Mountain State University, a Beckley-based school that faces a threat to its accreditation.
Through the West Virginia National Guard Educational Encouragement Program, any guard member can receive full coverage of tuition and allowable fees at any public institution in the state, public affairs officer David Lester said.
For private institutions like Mountain State, Lester said students are reimbursed for the amount it costs to attend the most expensive public school in the state.
West Virginia spent $5.23 million between spring of 2005 and spring of 2011 on tuition costs at Mountain State, according to records obtained from the state National Guard.
During the same period, the state spent a little more than $6 million on National Guard members attending West Virginia University, the most spent at any one school.
About $3.5 million was spent at Marshall University, the third most popular college for National Guard members, according to the data.
For any given semester during that span, the number of National Guard students attending Mountain State rivaled or surpassed that of the larger WVU and Marshall.
Of the 19 semesters (including summer sessions) during that period, Mountain State received more tuition reimbursement than any other school eight times and the second highest amount seven times.
In the fall of 2008, the state spent $619,745 on 212 members of the National Guard at Mountain State, the most it spent during any one semester at any institution in the seven-year period. It spent $467,263 on 180 students at WVU and $257,273 on 130 students at Marshall that semester.
The state spent nearly $26 million total on tuition assistance at 56 institutions during the seven-year period.
The board of trustees for the Higher Learning Commission, a national accrediting body for institutions of higher education, discussed Mountain State's accreditation during its board meeting June 28 and 29 in Chicago.
Earlier last month the commission put Mountain State on "show cause" status. It questioned the Beckley-based university's ability to fulfill its mission, "promote effective leadership" and allocate resources effectively, among other concerns.
The status means the university must prove within one year of the order's issuance that it meets all the criteria required for accreditation, according to the commission.
In December 2011 Major Gen. James Hoyer, the head of the state National Guard, sent a letter to then-Mountain State President Charles Polk emphasizing his concerns about how the university's status could affect National Guard students.
The same day, another letter was sent to all National Guard members attending Mountain State, informing them of the "show cause" order and telling them to make their own decisions "regarding your educational pathways."
The National Guard was a large target for Mountain State recruiters, according to earlier media reports.
The National Guard can provide information about schools, but it can't encourage — or prevent — students from going to an accredited university, Lester said.
"We do not dictate where, or advise or suggest where our students go," he said.
The National Guard relies on information from the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission for what institutions are reputable, Lester said.
For example, he said a student couldn't request tuition reimbursement from "Buckskin State" or any other institution if the commission did not approve of that institution.
"We don't have a lot of flexibility with where this money can go to," Lester said. "We don't have the ability to judge the accreditation."
He thought the large number of students attending Mountain State could be attributed to course accommodations offered for National Guard members who might be deployed or otherwise moving frequently.
The university's website has a page devoted to prospective students who are in the military, stating there are "nearly 300 courses which can be taken from the comfort of your barracks, ship or home . . ."
Mountain State was named a "Military Friendly School" for 2012 by G.I. Jobs magazine, and the university touts its programs as being affiliated with the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges Consortium. The consortium consists of roughly 1,900 institutions that offer programs for service members while meeting national accreditation, Department of Defense and Department of Education standards.
Mary Bird, the academic counseling coordinator for the consortium, said her organization is aware of the accreditation struggles at Mountain State. She said the university would remain a member of the consortium if it kept its accreditation and met the remaining membership criteria.
A representative from the Higher Learning Commission said June 29 the board had discussed Mountain State's accreditation status. He said Thursday the university expected the commission's decision this week.