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Scholarship threatened by budget cuts, HEPC chief says

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- If a proposed statewide budget cut is passed, thousands of high-achieving West Virginia students who depend on the Promise Scholarship to make it through college could be denied the help they need.

"We will have to tell a number of students, 'You did everything right, but we don't have enough money.' And that would be a very serious problem for us," said Paul Hill, chancellor of the state Higher Education Policy Commission.

The Promise Scholarship covers $4,750 of tuition for in-state students who maintained a B average in high school and scored at least a 22 composite score on the ACT. The scholarship can be used to fund four years of college if students maintain a 3.0 average.

Last year, more than $47 million in Promise scholarships were awarded to 9,820 West Virginia students.

Higher education officials told legislators last week that tuitions would have to increase to compensate for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's proposed 7.5 percent cut to institutions' budgets. Tomblin has asked all state agencies to incorporate the cut in next year's budgets, and projects it will save a total of $85 million.

The HEPC already has sent a letter to Tomblin requesting that higher education and financial aid programs be fully exempt. The cuts would have to be implemented by July 1, but Hill said he's worried about potential broken promises.

"Some funding for Promise is protected, but some comes from general revenue. If the budget cut is applied across the board, which is what's currently being proposed, that number will go down," Hill said. "We go out a year in advance and tell students that they're going to qualify for the scholarship. We could have a problem fulfilling that commitment to all of those students."

If the budget cuts pass, the HEPC could alter the scholarship to make it work, but they need time, Hill said.

"If we knew a year in advance that we were only going to have a certain amount of money, we could potentially go in and raise the standard, which would cut down on students [who] qualify. Or, we could cut down the amount of money we provide, which is going to cover less and less of tuition as rates increase," he said. "Every time you increase standards, you eliminate low-income students because they tend to not score as high on exams by no fault of their own."

More than 40 percent of West Virginia students qualify for the Pell Grant -- meaning they're from low-income families. It's estimated that it takes about 30 percent of the average West Virginia family income to pay a student's tuition.

While the state has one of the lowest college graduation rates in the country, it's ranked fifth in the nation for grant aid per fulltime student because of investments in Promise and the state's Higher Education Grant Program.

At the same time, the state continues to provide less and less support for college budgets, shifting more of the responsibility on students to pay their way.

Ten years ago, the state provided about 60 cents on the dollar for tuition revenues. Now, the state gives 34 cents on the dollar. The country's average is about 50 cents on the dollar.

"We're supported less than most states. Students are carrying more of the weight now for their education than the state is providing. You can see why those tuition numbers have had to creep up," Hill said. "Budgets have grown in terms of dollar amounts, but state appropriation has not. Meanwhile, we're serving more students and dollars are spreading thin. That's why college is becoming more expensive for students."

While the commission waits to see if their request for exemption will be passed, a team has been assembled to plan for possible budget cuts.

"This is a point we'll make to the Legislature when we go up for our budget hearing to let them know it's important that the state continues to invest in higher education. More students can afford to go to school by having state tax dollars support the institutions," he said. "We don't know if it's going to happen, but we're figuring out what the possible scenarios are. We're trying to make the numbers work with the potential impact of a proposed cut."

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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