As Congress nears the time to deal with another fiscal cliff and more talk of sequestration, some higher education officials in West Virginia wonder if the futures of some students are at stake.
The Pell grant program, which helps mainly low-income undergraduate students, could be affected by the next round of cuts in federal spending.
And that could affect thousands of West Virginians enrolled in two-year and four-year programs.
"We see the federal government say we want to see people go to college, yet Pell money is being cut," said Duane Chapman, vice president for enrollment management at Glenville State College.
And changes to Pell grants are one of the trends facing four-year schools across the state. In the state with the one of the lowest median household incomes, financial aid is important to the majority of undergraduates.
"Essentially, every student here has some kind of aid, whether that comes from state, federal or university. We're still looking for the person who writes a check and covers it all. That's not how it works in higher education anymore," said Edwin H. Welch, president of the University of Charleston.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, 63,967 West Virginians received help from the Pell grant program in the 2010-11 school year. Those students received a total of about $251.8 million, for an average award of $754.
Students who were listed as dependents on their parents' income tax returns received most of that money. Those attending state and private four-year schools and state two-year schools received more than $160 million of that, and more than half came from families with reported income of less than $20,000.
Students from families with incomes between $15,000 and $20,000 and who attended a state-supported four-year school received about $4,359 on average, according to Department of Education figures.
The percentage of students receiving Pell grants is high at many institutions, even at private ones where the stereotype is of an affluent student body. At most private schools in Appalachia, students receiving Pell grants make up 40 to 45 percent of undergraduate enrollment. At the University of Charleston, it's usually in the 37 to 42 percent range, Welch said.
That doesn't fit the stereotype of a private school, but it's the reality, he said.
Shepherd and Glenville
Sandra Bennett, director of financial aid at Shepherd University, agreed with Welch's statement that students whose families can write a check to take care of tuition and fees are rare in West Virginia. But that should not stop prospective students from pursuing higher education, she said.
"Student loans are definitely increasing, but for a West Virginia resident, if a student is eligible for a Pell grant, a Promise scholarship and an HEGP (state need-based aid), they can go to a variety of institutions and come out without debt," Bennett said.
The typical story of a student leaving school deeply in debt usually involves someone who went to an out-of-state school and finished a graduate program, Bennett said.
Chapman at Glenville said students need to use the Internet and diligence to find other aid opportunities that are out there, usually in a specific career field.
"There are scholarships out there that you're going to have to search for," he said.
And while some high school students are being advised to consider taking their first two years at a community and technical college to save money, neither Glenville nor Shepherd has seen an increase in people wanting to transfer from the CTC system, Bennett and Chapman said.
"I haven't noticed a lot of students pursuing that route. The cost differential right now isn't that great," Bennett said.
University of Charleston
UC's goal is to provide students with an Ivy League education and the University of Charleston's private school experience at a public university cost. That's not been reached yet, but it's the goal, Welch said.
Meanwhile, expectations of what a university should provide has changed, he said.
"Education is becoming more of a commodity. I want a certificate. And what's the certificate going to cost me?" he said.
Schools must show the students what they get for the money, Welch said.
Welch acknowledged that students, parents and others complain about the rising cost of tuition. But, he said, demands from accrediting agencies and state and federal regulators about class size, the number of people needed in business and other offices combined with students' demand for amenities such as fitness centers, drive up expenses and thus tuition and fees.
In response to that, this year UC guarantees every student $6,000 worth of financial aid, meaning other sources must be tapped to come up with the $19,500 tuition.
"We thought last year when we reduced tuition that we would have a lot more students apply. We had more inquiries but not an increase in applications. We have an increase in enrollment," Welch said.
That's because those who applied were more serious about considering UC. Apparently, fewer prospective students are applying to several colleges and then picking one from those where they are accepted, Welch said.
What aid doesn't pay for, loans usually do, Welch said.
UC has seen an increase in federal student loans. Usually, parents take out the loans for students in the first year, and the students take over after that, Welch said.
After UC took over most of Mountain State University's operations a few months ago, the school now has a two-tiered system of tuition and fees. At the main campus, which offers a variety of activities common to universities, tuition is high, and financial aid is available. At the former MSU campuses at Beckley and Martinsburg, tuition and fees are lower, but less aid is available because students tend to want to know the net price up front.
UC has taken over MSU's online infrastructure to reach that market now, Welch said.
Since 2008, UC has seen a trend of losing first-year students to CTCs. That year the school lost 43 students who applied, were accepted and had registered for classes, Welch said.
UC has seen an increase in the number of students transferring in after a year or two in a CTC. The school has articulation agreements with Bridgemont and Kanawha Valley CTCs to make the transition easier, and it is negotiating with two others.
"And I think that will be a route that more people will take," Welch said.
The downside for UC and other four-year schools is that higher-level classes are more expensive to offer than freshman- and sophomore-level classes.
"The business model gets skewed," Welch said.