Subsidy Keeps Students in W.Va. College, Universities

By Puko, Tim | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 23, 2007 | Go to article overview
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Subsidy Keeps Students in W.Va. College, Universities

Puko, Tim, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

When the three Triveri boys finish college around 2012, their parents will have saved about $48,000 in tuition, courtesy of the state of West Virginia.

"That's been a godsend right there," said Bob Triveri of Wheeling. "It was the smartest thing the government ever did."

Six years ago, West Virginia embarked on a program similar to the Pittsburgh Promise.

West Virginia's program offers free tuition each year to thousands of high-achieving high school graduates who stay in the state to attend college.

The program, costing $40 million annually, relieves participating families -- regardless of their income -- from paying college tuition and frees some of the state's brightest students from potentially burdensome debt after graduation. Its proponents say it is partly responsible for an increase in the proportion of West Virginia students enrolling in West Virginia colleges, up 4.4 percentage points since 2001, the year before the program started.

But almost three-fourths of respondents said they would have gone to a West Virginia college regardless of the scholarship, according to a survey of the first class of Promise scholars done last year by a Marshall University professor. And there is no evidence to show the scholarship keeps any of those students in the state after graduation, said Marshall researcher Bobbi Nicholson.

That makes the program an expensive subsidy to middle- and upper- class families that provides no long-term economic benefit to the state, said Nicholson and other critics.

"The best and brightest would probably have graduated at a higher rate anyway," said former state Sen. Lloyd Jackson of Hamlin, W.Va. "But we need them to graduate from here and not someplace else."

West Virginia had long been losing its most talented students to colleges in other states, and the Promise was to encourage them to stay home. Jackson, then the Senate's education committee chairman, helped pass it through the state legislature in 1999.

The state didn't fund the program until 2002, and its effects seemed immediate, several higher education officials said. West Virginia college and universities, both public and private, saw spikes in enrollment, which they have been able to maintain.

West Virginia University enrolls most of the Promise scholars, and enrollment of in-state freshmen increased by 13 percent in 2002, the first year of the program, according to the school's statistics. The university experienced a similar jump the next year and enrolled 2,391 new freshmen from West Virginia. The number of new students from West Virginia has leveled out at about 2,400 each year.

The Promise program gets most of its funding from slots revenue. The program paid 9,597 scholarships in fiscal year 2007.

Slightly less than half of West Virginia high school graduates enrolled in college a decade ago, but that figure has increased to 58.3 percent, according to West Virginia University.

Almost 84 percent of West Virginia's college-bound high school graduates opted for in-state schools last year, the most recent statistics available, compared with about 80 percent in 2001, the year before the start of the Promise program, according to the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission.

"Are these things effective? Yes," said Brian Noland, chancellor of the commission, which oversees the program. "They change cultures, they change study habits, they change aspirations. For students from middle-income families, who don't qualify for need- based aid, who are loan averse ... this has made a significant difference in the state."

Some educators and politicians say the program has led to harder- working students, to rising test scores, to increased interest in college and, potentially and most importantly, could lead to the best students staying in West Virginia after college graduation.

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