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Should PROMISE help be based on more than merit?

January 15, 2004

The PROMISE scholarship program, the top achievement of West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise's administration, has been so successful that it may make it difficult to fund, a top education official told state lawmakers on Monday.

But even though the head of the Higher Education Policy Commission said that financial aid for needy students won't be cut, no matter what happens, it may be time to consider some eligibility changes to the plan.

When Gov. Wise was pushing funding for the PROMISE plan back in 2001, he said it would be an achievement-based program. Any student with a 3.0 grade point average in high school and a good score on the ACT college entrance exam would receive tuition help.

The program had been approved by the Legislature three years prior to that, but wasn't funded until video-lottery machine gambling was legalized. At the time, it was projected that PROMISE might eventually cost the state $235 million per year.

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In August of 2002, West Virginia University reported that 40 percent of its incoming freshman class would pay at least part of its tuition with PROMISE cash. WVU officials described it as a mixed blessing, because while everyone wants to see more students in college, the sudden surge was making it difficult to find space for all of them.

In December of 2002, Wise dealt with the criticism leveled at the program by some who said it only benefited those who would have gone to college anyway. Even if a millionaire's child uses PROMISE, then stays in the state after graduation, that person would pay more in taxes than the scholarship cost.

But the original premise of the program was to get students into college who wouldn't have gone otherwise because their families couldn't afford it. Now the lawmakers are saying the practice of "stacking" merit-based and need-based aid programs is becoming unaffordable.

In our view, those who have entered college already should be eligible for aid under the present rules until they graduate. But those students from families that are wealthy - a definition that has yet to be worked out - should face the possibility that future awards will be based on need as well as merit.

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