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State higher ed chief says no cuts to financial aid

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The state Higher Education Policy Commission won't cut funding for its financial aid programs, including the Promise Scholarship, regardless of whether Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin exempts higher education from statewide budget cuts.

That means public universities and other commission programs could suffer more than originally anticipated, according to a statement from Chancellor Paul Hill.

"As a result of the financial aid exemption from the proposed budget reduction, the institutions and other programs administered by the state's higher education system and individual institutions will be subject to an increased proposed budget reduction in order for the overall proposed reduction in higher education's budget to equal 7.5 percent as requested by Governor Tomblin," Hill said in a statement emailed late Monday by a spokesperson.

In August, Tomblin's office asked state agencies to cut budgets for the 2014 fiscal year by 7.5 percent.

While some agencies or programs are exempt from the cut - the funding mechanism for K-12 education among them - the $456 million currently allocated by the state to higher education is not.

The request for slimmer budgets has solicited a variety of responses from Hill and the commission.

Shortly after Tomblin's office announced the proposed cuts, the commission voted to send a letter to the governor asking him to exempt higher education.

In subsequent meetings with legislative committees, Hill and James Skidmore, chancellor of the state Council for Community and Technical College Education, said the cuts could translate to higher tuition.

Hill also told legislators in October the cut "alone does not per se impact the Promise scholarship."

Although he was quoted in an Oct. 14 Sunday Gazette Mail story as saying the cuts could prevent qualified students from receiving the Promise, he later told the Daily Mail those comments were taken out of context. Instead, he meant the cuts could potentially affect funding for the program, a representative said at the time.

However, in a letter dated Sept. 4 from Hill to the state Department of Revenue, he said the state might have to consider changing the qualifications of the Promise scholarship as a result of the budget cuts. In the letter, he states legislators might need to consider a code change that would make only students who plan to attend public, in-state colleges or universities eligible.

This change was one of several, including "significant tuition increases," that Hill's letter listed could come as a direct result of budget cuts, according to Daily Mail records.

The Promise is an award for West Virginia high school students who perform well academically. There is $47.5 million allocated to the program this year: $29 million from revenue earned through video gambling (or "grey machines") and $18.5 million from general revenue.

Budget requests are presented by state agencies to the governor, and were due to the state Budget Office by Sept. 4. After a legislative committee meeting Monday, Hill said the commission had decided to "exempt it ourselves."

That decision was not included in the initial written budget submission, but Hill recommended the change earlier this month during discussions with officials from the state budget office, a spokesperson said late Monday in an email.

The budgeting process is far from over.

Tomblin isn't expected to present his budget to the Legislature until February. After the committee meeting Monday, Hill said exempting financial aid is the latest step in the process, but each line item in the commission's budget could change as negotiations continue.

Although the exemption could mean more financial strain for other commission entities, Hill said it shows the commission's dedication to students.

"The commission's recommendation makes direct student support the first and foremost priority of the state's higher education system," Hill said in the statement.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.


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