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WVU student group lobbies for full Promise funding

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Capping the amount of money available to students through the Promise scholarship is unfair, one group of West Virginia University students says.

That's why the group, Student Advocates for Legislative Advancement, lobbied lawmakers at the state capitol March 11 in support of House Bill 2581 and Senate Bill 339. Both bills would return the scholarship to its full amount by using the general revenue section within the excess lottery fund as the financial source.

"It was capped in 2010 to $4,750," SALA member Katie Heller said. "Minimum tuition is usually right around $6,000, so that leaves about a $1,200 gap which for some people is imperative and a deciding factor as to whether or not they'll go to school."

House Bill 2581 and Senate Bill 339 amend current code. The change for fiscal year 2014 would require $3,409.25 be deposited into the Education Improvement Fund for appropriation by the Legislature for the purpose of providing full tuition and fee awards for Promise scholars at public institutions.

Heller said the legislators SALA met with were supportive of the bill but cautioned the group that passage of the bill may not happen.

"People are really supportive of the idea, but with the lottery fund decreasing year by year, they don't know if it's actually feasible," Heller said.

Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, is the lead sponsor of HB 2581. Heller said Fleischauer has been very supportive of the group and is working to get the bill passed.

"She's really supportive of it and really wants to move it through and vote for it," Heller said.

Fleischauer was unavailable for comment. Sen. Bob Beech, D-Monongalia, is lead sponsor of the Senate bill.

The Promise scholarship is perhaps the most sought-after scholarship in the state. In 2012, 9,772 students were awarded the scholarship, according to the Higher Education Policy Commission. For the 2010 school year, the year the amount awarded was capped, 9,783 students received the scholarship. In both years, more than 4,000 West Virginia University students were awarded the scholarship. The state awarded slightly more than $47 million in Promise funds in 2010.

According to information from SALA, about 44 percent of Promise recipients attend WVU, but retention rates have dropped about 3 percent since the cap was enacted. Kristen Pennington, chairwoman of SALA, said restoring the program to fund full tuition and rates would help students stay in school.

"Full restoration of the Promise Scholarship makes it more likely for the best and brightest to get to school, stay in school and fulfill their maximum potential," Pennington said.

But lean budget years may make restoring funding next to impossible. In September, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin asked state agencies, including the West Virginia Lottery Commission and higher education to cut their budgets by 7.5 percent. Lottery Commissioner John Musgrave told the House Finance Committee that the commission sets aside $40 million of its budget at the beginning of each fiscal year to help jumpstart funding for several programs, including higher education. But the commission also had to reduce its revenue estimates for fiscal years 2011 and 2012, thanks in part to competition from other states taking business from casinos and racetracks located near the border. Changes in consumer buying habits, including fewer people going in convenience stores and buying West Virginia Lottery scratch-off tickets, also led to the decline in revenue.

House Bill 2581 and Senate Bill 339 are currently in their respective education committees.