W.Va. report raises questions about scholarships

AP News
Posted: Nov 12, 2009 5:16 PM

Recipients of merit-based PROMISE scholarships stay in West Virginia at a lower rate than the average in-state college graduate, a new report shows.

Some lawmakers say the finding is not necessarily a knock on the program.

"We're looking at a cup, and someone's saying it's one-third empty when really it's two-thirds full," said state Sen. Mike Oliverio, D-Monongalia.

West Virginia University's Bureau of Business and Economic Research reported Wednesday that about 62 percent of PROMISE scholars remain in West Virginia after graduating. That's in contrast to about 67 percent of all in-state students, and 70 percent of students who receive need-based tuition aid.

"At least to date, the evidence we have suggest the PROMISE scholarship isn't having a big impact on the state's human capital," said George Hammond, associate director of the bureau.

Hammond does caution that there's still a lot to learn about the program, since only two cohorts of PROMISE scholars have graduated since it began in 2002.

"The jury's still out on what will happen when the PROMISE scholars who are now in graduate school complete their education," he said. "Will they come to work in West Virginia? Will they go elsewhere? We don't know yet."

The merit-based program now covers tuition and fees at any of the state's public colleges and universities, and an equivalent amount at its private institutions, for up to four years.

In that time, the program's costs have grown from about $10 million to more than $42 million. The number of students winning PROMISE scholarships has gone from 3,555 to nearly 9,000.

That, along with the need-based tuition aid given under the Higher Education Grant Program, is money well spent, Oliverio said.

"The numbers show it's making an enormous positive impact on our human capital," said Oliverio, who has been a vocal advocate for the program in the Legislature.

"Those students were some of the very students who, 10 years ago, were leaving West Virginia to go to universities in other states," he said.

Next week, the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission will get a Legislature-mandated report on financial aid in the state, including new findings about PROMISE.

According to a summary of the research, PROMISE recipients' graduation rates, consistently higher than average students, have increased, along with the number of transfers to four-year colleges.

"The PROMISE Scholarship is working," said state Sen. Erik Wells. The Kanawha County Democrat is the vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

"At a very basic level, we are providing opportunities for students to thrive in their chosen career fields by providing them with a quality education," he said.

The research that will be presented next week also found that the proportion of PROMISE scholars coming from families with incomes over $90,000 increased between the 2003-2004 and 2007-2008 school years, and that recipients are increasingly attending West Virginia University.

The PROMISE program is a subject of constant vigilance for lawmakers, who this year imposed a cap of $4,750 on tuition awards starting with the class of 2010.

Matt Turner, a spokesman for Gov. Joe Manchin, said the types of questions raised by the bureau's report are part of the state's ongoing evaluation of the program.

"There's no doubt PROMISE is a substantial investment for West Virginia, but it's been a good program," Turner said.