West Virginia Just Warned High Schools Not To Promise PROMISE Scholarships

By  Jenni Vincent

College, and even high school students, counting on the Promise Scholarship are now facing the same economic limbo as agencies, because legislators haven’t finalized a budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 – although a special session will be held beginning May 16.

In a stunning move, the state sent a letter to educators advising them against recognizing graduating high school seniors as Promise recipients.

Instead, seniors will be recognized as Promise eligible when recognized at award ceremonies. The notification went out to high school counselors from the state Higher Education Policy Commission.

State Communications Director Chris Stadelman, after announcing the special legislative session date earlier today, said it was important to bring policymakers together since no budget consensus is yet in sight.

“Discussions continue, but it’s fair to say there’s no definite agreement at this point. The uncertainty was becoming difficult, so the governor thought it was best to bring everybody back and see what we can get accomplished,” he said.

Promise funding is part of the mix – including other public education, higher education and public safety – that legislators will be dealing with upon return to Charleston – two months after completing the regular session.

“We certainly expect the funds to be available, but technically since there is no budget there is no money. It was precautionary,” he said.

Some scenarios, including one by Del. Patrick Lane (R-Kanawha) include cutting the scholarship – which is merit based and provides $4,750 a year to help cover tuition at public school.

A complete cut would save the state $47.5 million. There’s currently a $270 million gap to fill for 2017.

“This is nothing we want to do, and we don’t think this will happen. But if you are looking at an all-cut option, this would be one of the things that could happen,” he said.

In that case, students would be impacted immediately.

“A 100 percent reduction of the Promise Scholarship would be $47.5 million, and that’s if we eliminated all of it today,” he said, adding that approximately 9,000 students received the financial help this year.

“If this total cut took place, and you’d had it (as a student) for three years then you would not be funded in your fourth year of education,” he said. “But if it was phased out it would be about $11.9 million, and that would mean a student who was a sophomore would keep it for their junior and senior years. But no high school seniors would get it next year.”

All of this uncertainty is hard to take, but it is almost impossible to imagine a future without this state-funded scholarship because it has been “simply priceless” for students since its inception in the early 2000’s, said Christi Heatan, Berkeley County Schools’ Academic Support Coordinator.

“Right now it is all about waiting on the budget – to see if these funds are going to be approved, and if so, how much per student. I have been on the phone with the governor’s office and they said to announce them as Promise eligible because they have met the requirements, but no money is currently available to them,” she said.

For example, these individuals will be announced and asked to stand when local high schools hold their award ceremonies prior to the week of May 23 when all four Berkeley County high schools will hold commencement ceremonies.

This limbo doesn’t give students time to change college plans if needed, or perhaps even find additional financial help, she said.

Heatan said she has definitely known students who could not have attended college without this help.

“That’s why I say it is priceless, because of the impact on these students and their futures,” she said.

Hedgesville High School Principal Ron Lyons agreed, adding that he knows how much it matter – from both professional and personal experience.

“My son just finished his freshman year at West Virginia University, and let me tell you that I am very concerned about what’s going to happen because he is one of those students who would be impacted if it is reduced or eliminated,” he said.