What Happens When a College Town Loses Its College?

Nadia Ramlagan

By Nick Fouriezos for Open Campus via The Daily Yonder.
Broadcast version by Nadia Ramlagan for West Virginia News Service Service for the Public News Service/Daily Yonder Collaboration

A black-and-white film plays beside Mountaineer sports pennants at “The New Place,” the area’s last remaining bar, now two decades old. It’s 8 p.m. on a weekday, and it’s just me and two other souls.

“I love West Virginia University,” one says, “but they wrecked the city of Montgomery.”

In 2017, WVU relocated West Virginia Tech from its home of 120 years, citing low enrollment – around half its peak of about 3,000 students – and high costs while moving from Montgomery to Beckley, a bigger city an hour up the valley.

The decision risks making the former college town of Montgomery into a ghost town. More than five years later, it still inspires emotional reactions from residents, even in a state and region well familiar with resource extraction.

Life without the local college is a reality that more rural areas are having to contend with (even if the closure of a public university is still exceedingly rare). Since 2016, more than 90 public or private nonprofit colleges have closed or been marked for closure, according to Higher Ed Dive’s tracker.

“In West Virginia, we’re robbing from the poor towns and putting wealth into richer towns,” Montgomery Mayor Greg Ingram says.

In the Appalachian state, it’s clear that the state’s flagship university isn’t the sole culprit for the challenges facing Montgomery and the surrounding region.

On the surface, the valley has all the trappings of a prime tourist destination: a sparkling river, a gorgeous waterfall, and hills of houses that paint the white West Virginia snow in pastel pinks, blues, yellows. However, the drive down Highway 60 is a drive that deceives.

That sparkling river? It’s the Kanawha River, the toxic recipient of two centuries of coal mining (and, in 2015, a train’s worth of spilled crude oil that literally set it on fire). And those pastel houses? Many sit empty, ravaged by the same factors (drugs, poverty, aging) that contribute to West Virginia being one of the nation’s leading states for population loss.

Montgomery and its neighbors will have to grapple with those obstacles as they try to transition to rebuild its economy around tourism, although “that’s nowhere near the same size as what our college was,” Ingram, the mayor, reflects.

West Virginia Tech, and its once top-10 engineer program, had been one of the area’s proudest assets – the rare case that imported new people and ideas, rather than exporting them out for others to enjoy.

But then WVU bought the campus in 1995. Ever since, residents here feel, the flagship university has worked to move it out, before finally getting approval to do so in 2015.

“WVU swings a big political club in West Virginia,” Ingram says, singling out Gordon Gee, its president, who has also been known for aggressive expansion at other flagships, including Ohio State University and the University of Colorado-Boulder.

Rural communities and their universities are facing special difficulties as pandemic aid dwindles, and enrollment remains down. It’s feeding distrust of larger state universities, many of which have grown larger by acquiring rural outposts that end up being the first cut once leaner times hit.

“They just wanted it out of here: It’s all political,” Ingram says, lamenting the loss of the Kroger, the car dealership, more than 100 well-paid university professionals, and, of course, the students who rented hundreds of rooms throughout the region.

“People should just come and look at the desolation they left. It would be a good education for the whole country, really: Don’t move a college.”

I went to Montgomery, and saw the aftermath of WVU’s decision, which I will explore in more depth in a future issue. In this newsletter though, I want to reflect on the frustrations rural communities feel toward state flagships – “the big university,” as many say, and not just in West Virginia, but across these divided states of America.

“This was the lifeblood of this town: It’s what the area is known for,” Ingram says. “Morgantown is known for WVU – well, pull WVU out of there, and see what Morgantown is left with.”