The announcement of the new program comes during a turbulent time in West Virginia higher education as universities grapple with millions of dollars of debt


**Photo caption: Dr. Danny Twilley (left), assistant vice president of economic, community and asset development for the Brad and Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative, introduced Marshall University President Brad Smith (center) and West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee (right) announced the First Ascent program together at the West Virginia Chamber Annual Business Summit at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023. (Amelia Ferrell Knisely | West Virginia Watch)

A new program, backed by the state’s two largest universities, looks to retain college graduates in West Virginia through a number of incentives aimed at their generation, including access to free co-working spaces for remote work. The program will also promote use of the state’s outdoor recreation. 

The plan, dubbed First Ascent, was rolled out Wednesday as Marshall University President Brad Smith and West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee announced it together on stage at the start of the West Virginia Chamber Annual Business Summit. The event will continue this week at The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs. 

The event, attended by Greenbrier-owner Gov. Jim Justice and the who’s who in state politics and business, kicked off largely with a focus on success and the future of higher education, touting the new First Ascent Program and how universities fuel the state economy. But, the announcement comes as numerous state universities are grappling with millions of dollars of debt in the wake of declining enrollment and pandemic-fueled problems. WVU, the state’s flagship university, is looking to cut dozens of academic programs and hundreds of faculty jobs amid its own mountain of debt.

While both Smith and Gee noted the challenges facing their institutions — Gee laughed as he told the crowd, “This is the first time I’ve seen a friendly crowd in awhile,” — they’re hoping the First Ascent program will reverse the state’s widely-reported “brain drain.” 

“What we’ve done is export coal and gas, but the most-telling export is our talent,” Gee said. “Now, we need to make sure we keep our talent here.”

West Virginia has the nation’s fastest declining population, even costing the state a Congressional seat in 2022.

For WVU and Marshall university graduates who want to stay in the Mountain State, the First Ascent program will offer a number of free incentives to those who are accepted into the program. Participants must accept a remote or hybrid full-time position for a company based in- or out-of-state or have launched a business that operates and/or delivers services remotely prior to applying.

Participants will be required to live in the Morgantown area, Huntington area, Eastern Panhandle, New River Gorge, Greater Elkins or Greenbrier Valley.

Along with a co-working space, program perks include success coaches, professional mentorships and more.

Current students and alumni from Marshall and WVU can apply for First Ascent during the last year of their degree program through one-year post-graduation.

According to its website, the program was funded by WVU Provost Reed’s Innovation Summit along with federal grant and state funding.  

The program was closely-modeled after the state’s Ascend Program, which pays workers $12,000 along with other incentives to relocate to West Virgnia. Smith and his wife, Alys Smith, were the visionaries behind that program, which launched in 2021 and had participants from 35 states. 

“When we started with Ascend, the goal was to bring people to West Virginia — either for the first time or as returners,” Smith said in a news release. “With First Ascent, we’re working to keep our graduates in state by positioning West Virginia as a hub for remote workers who can find success in the increasingly digital world while supporting overall state economic growth.”

West Virginia has other long-standing programs that have contributed to its population decline that includes young families,including the nation’s worst education outcomes and overall poor health

Lawmakers have said they’re laser-focused on reversing the state’s population decline through jobs and other incentives, like the remote-worker friendly programs, and they’re looking in part to the state’s surplus money to help their cause. Earlier this year, Justice signed into law the state’s largest tax cut in history, hoping to spur population growth.  

Marshall and WVU dealing with debt

Following the announcement, Smith stayed on stage during the Business Summit’s opening event during a discussion titled, “Higher Education Fueling West Virginia’s Economy.” 

Marshall University, Justice’s alma mater, is the host sponsor of the annual Business Summit. 

Smith said Marshall’s enrollment is up 5.1%, and the university is working on a plan that would allow students in 10 years to graduate debt free. “We have a road map to get there, and we already have progress starting to show up,” he said.

But, he also noted that the university has a $28 million structural deficit that they’re currently addressing. 

“We see a path to get the school profitable by 2027,” he said. 

Smith described Gee’s efforts to address WVU’s debt as “courageous.” 

Gee has come under fire for his leadership and spending as the school is facing a $45 million shortfall. For the second time in his tenure, he is facing a possible vote of no confidence from faculty, who accused Gee of not clearly communicating how the proposed programs and jobs cuts would address the overall financial problems.

The university has said its enrollment is declining — a 10% decrease since 2015.

While Gee many times acknowledged that the changes will not be easy, he said that cuts are necessary for the financial health and future of the university. The proposed program changes would affect less than 2% of students, according to university officials.

Faculty and students have argued that cutting programs, particularly those in World Languages that are marked to be discontinued, will likely result in more students choosing to go elsewhere for their education. 

Gee said he plans to step down in 2025.

Alderson Broaddus, a private university in Philippi, is in the process of closing due to millions of dollars of debt. 

** West Virginia Watch is a nonprofit media source. Articles are shared under creative commons license. Please visit for more independent Mountain State news coverage.

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