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PROMISE scholarship capped

By Staff | Jan 7, 2009

The promise of scholarships for West Virginia students is still there, but the dollar amount paid out per student could be capped in the near future.

That was the opinion handed down by the Promise Scholarship Ad-Hoc Advisory Committee, tasked with finding ways to reduce the cost of the state’s merit scholarship; a program costing the state almost $10 million for each class of graduating seniors.

Currently, the Promise Scholarship pays tuition and mandatory fees at any public college or the average equivalent dollar amount at a private college for any student not making less than a 3.0 grade point average. The scholarship was created six years ago by former Gov. Bob Wise and is funded through the state’s video lottery machines. About 9,300 students are currently benefiting from the PROMISE Scholarship. Roughly 3,000 incoming college freshmen received PROMISE in 2007.

Tyler County School Superintendent Jeff Hoover says the Promise Scholarship was a benefit to his family.

“Two of my stepsons won the Promise Scholarship and it was very important for their education,” remarked Hoover.

Tyler Consolidated High School Guidance Counselor Terri McCoy say the Promise is an invaluable tool for high school seniors wanting to pay for college. Last year 35 TCHS students were able to pay for college through the scholarship.

“A lot of our students do benefit from the Promise Scholarship,” said McCoy. “This year, the way it looks right now, it looks like 20 of our 98 students are probably going to get a Promise Scholarship. Some of them may go out of state and not use it, but that’s still a pretty good percentage of a small class that should benefit from it.”

However, with rising tuition costs at in-state institutions, such as West Virginia University, and more students choosing to use the Promise at four-year colleges and universities, the program is becoming a financial drain on the state; almost $40 million a year. This is despite numbers that show a statewide decline in high school graduates. Over the years higher eligibility requirements were added to limit the number of students using the scholarship.

Either way, the costs are adding up, and the Promise Scholarship Ad-Hoc Advisory Committee was formed to look at ways to improve the program. The group has proposed to cap the scholarship at $4,500 per student at in-state public colleges and universities. The scholarship is already capped at $4,752 for students going to in-state private institutions. Capping the Promise would save the state money, but it would also mean Promise won’t cover full tuition anymore.

“We knew it was coming at some point,” stated Hoover. “We started to see more and more and more kids qualify for it statewide. The state found itself thinking this was a wonderful idea, but it has grown to the point that, with the numbers of children, we don’t know if we can afford it anymore. Every year there has been (a question) of how do we make this thing feasible.”

McCoy says that capping the scholarship would be less detrimental than adding new rules and standards to reach.

“I would rather have them cap it than raise the requirements again, because that knocks more students out,” explained McCoy. “I would rather see them get a lot to help them out than not get anything because they raised the requirements again. The second year they did Promise they raised the requirements in the fall and it was really tough for students who thought they’d get it but ended up not getting it because of the changes.”

Despite the caps, there may be a chance for federal tax credits to take up the slack, keeping the burden off of low-income families. McCoy says there are other grants and scholarships that can help out as well.

“Some of these students are also maybe going to get some Pell Grants, and that might bridge the gap between what Promise doesn’t pay, or they could apply for other scholarships that could pay for room and board or books; things that the Promise doesn’t cover anyway,” said McCoy.

The report also looks at ways to keep students from leaving the state. Last year Gov. Joe Manchin proposed adding a mandatory in-state work requirement, but he later dropped the proposal. A separate report and poll released last spring by the Higher Education Policy Commission shows that 60 percent of high school seniors would still accept the Promise Scholarship even with Manchin’s proposed work requirement.

Instead, the committee has proposed encouraging students to participate in volunteer work in the state. Currently, the Promise Scholarship does not mandate volunteerism. Creating a mandate would only increase administrative costs. Instead, the committee recommends that students sign a pledge that urges payback in the form of volunteer work.

Despite the changes over the years, McCoy is pleased that the Promise Scholarship is available and providing opportunities for Tyler County students.

“I don’t really have a whole lot of complaints about it,” noted McCoy. “When I first started working with it there were a lot of bugs and it was tough to do the paperwork. They’ve made it pretty user-friendly for us. For counselors it seems like they’re looking out for us in terms of not giving us something else that gets you overloaded. I’m pretty happy with it right now.”