The state's higher education system is preparing for perhaps the biggest punch to come from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's requested budget cuts.
While most other agencies are reducing their budgets by 7.5 percent, the Higher Education Policy Commission is slashing its budget by 8.9 percent in an effort to save financial aid programs from reduction.
Paul Hill, HEPC chancellor, said at a joint meeting of the House of Delegates Finance and Education committees that financial aid programs — those funded by HEPC and the individual institutions — were exempted from the budget cuts.
"If we slowed down the number of students coming into our institutions, it would have a detrimental affect in the long run," Hill said.
About $22 million of HEPC's budget was not subjected to Tomblin's cuts, Hill said. To offset that, other line items in the budget had to be reduced 8.9 percent so the HEPC's entire budget would comply with Tomblin's request. As a result of the cuts, the HEPC will see a budget reduction of $29.3 million, resulting in a fiscal year 2014 budget of $298 million, down from $328 million.
Hill emphasized the importance of financial aid. Between 2007 and 2012, 155,000 students attending West Virginia schools relied on some form of financial aid. A large percentage of students qualify for federal Pell grants, meaning they come from low-income homes.
"Forty-three percent of our students qualify for the Pell," Hill said. "What this tells us is 43 percent of our students are considered low socioeconomic status … by (the federal government's) definition so they meet the qualifications to receive the Pell grant."
In addition to the Pell grant, West Virginia students can take advantage of other grants, the Promise Scholarship and institution-specific scholarships. Then there's student loans.
Hill said 52 percent of students borrow money to fund their college education, the average loan totaling $7,300.
"I know there's a lot of concern about this nationally," Hill said. "This 2011 data shows what its like for the average West Virginia student."
Although many students depend on financial aid, including student loans, to pay for their higher education, Hill said West Virginia's costs are on par with the national average and in some cases, lower. For the average four-year, public institution, students in West Virginia can expect to pay about $22,000, including $8,000 in tuition and $9,000 in room and board, as well as book, supplies and transportation. These prices are much lower than what a student would pay at an out-of-state school, Hill pointed out.
"It is more expensive today than it was 10 years ago, no doubt about it," Hill said. "But we do lag behind peers nationally."