MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — On a crisp day in November, three young men gathered at the tiny municipal airport in Morgantown, just minutes from West Virginia University’s campus. One paced nervously, having never flown before. Another was dressed as the university’s mascot, wearing buckskin and toting a rifle. The third was reading a book, Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.”
The three men, all W.V.U. students, were boarding a private plane for a recruiting trip to McDowell County, the remote heart of Appalachia, with Gordon Gee, the university’s president. Their job was to persuade some of the state’s most promising high school students to stay home for college, like they did, and not be tempted by the glamour and mystique of elite schools in faraway states.
“I’ve joked about the fact that I want to build a wall around West Virginia and keep all the kids here,” Dr. Gee said, chuckling. “A state can’t flourish that can’t keep its young people there.”