West Virginia is not doing well in higher education. In fact, we have the lowest rate of college-educated residents in the nation.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2012 Statistical Abstract, as of 2009 only 17.3 percent of West Virginians hold a bachelor's degree. That's 10 percentage points below the national average.
This is a problem with big implications for the economy. People with college degrees earn more, are more likely to be entrepreneurs, and are more likely to do things like invest their money or save for retirement. The rate of college-educated residents tells us a lot about the economy -- and ours doesn't look good.
The PROMISE Scholarship is trying fix this problem. The scholarship invests state funds to help residents pay for college. This should increase the state's college-educated population and in turn help the economy. But there's a problem: Many people who take the scholarship move out of state after graduation.
Their education helps boost another economy -- one that didn't pay for their degree. Much of the government spending on the scholarship is being lost to brain drain.
The scholarship is widely popular: 88 percent of those who qualify accept it. It's hard to turn down. The scholarship offers students who achieve at least a 3.0 GPA on a 4.0 scale and at least a 21 on the ACT, $4,750 a year to attend an accredited college in West Virginia. For me and many of my classmates, the PROMISE Scholarship turned the choice between in-state and out-of-state colleges into a decision between financial health and student loans. For students who can't turn down nearly $20,000 over four years, the scholarship makes the decision.
The scholarship convinces students to stay in state for college, but often they're only postponing their departure. According to a study led by economist George Hammond, only 60 percent of PROMISE scholars who graduated between 2003 and 2008 worked in the state in 2009. This is actually less than the 65 percent of all in-state graduates who remained in West Virginia in the same time span. PROMISE Scholars are more likely than other students to leave the state after graduation. When they leave, they take the state's investment with them.
Former Gov. Bob Wise, who created the program, maintains that "the PROMISE Scholarship is a major economic tool for West Virginia," but the fact remains that it is a huge investment that has not shown a significant state economic return. It's nice to offer residents a nearly free education, but the scholarship costs the state approximately $50 million a year, and it's producing limited economic results. The state government is correct in recognizing the need to increase higher education in West Virginia, but this strategy isn't working.
The Legislature should rethink the scholarship. The cost of this program (nearly half a billion dollars over a decade) could be used in an investment that achieves the goal of increasing college education rates. The state should work on attracting these college graduates and keeping them here. A good place to start would be promoting industries with educated workers. Fostering these businesses would both create jobs for college graduates and support economic development.
The PROMISE Scholarship's funding would be more effectively spent attracting the college educated by promoting state business and creating higher level jobs, rather than handing out educations that many take elsewhere.
O'Sullivan, is a college student from Lewisburg.