GLENVILLE, W.Va. — West Virginia’s student loan debt is higher than the national average, but education officials in the Mountain State are helping students avoid accruing that kind of debt.

Brian Weingart, senior director for financial aid at the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, said the WVHEPC does a lot of outreach activities for high school graduates looking to further their education.

This past year, the Higher Education Policy Commission held over 200 financial aid nights and FAFSA workshops providing prospective students with FAFSA information, as well as what scholarships and grants are available.

“A third of all students who do graduate, graduate with no student loan debt,” he said. “We want to let them know how much in scholarships and grants they can get so they don’t have to borrow.”

Some of West Virginia’s higher education institutions are also taking an interest in helping college be affordable to students.

Glenville State College received recognition last year when administration announced that they would be lowering tuition costs at a time when other institutions in the state were raising their costs. Recently President Tracy Pellett announced the tuition costs for the 2018-2019 academic year would be even lower.

“We wanted to come back out and say what we’re doing next year and really make a promise to the state, our students and potential students as the only institution to hold tuition this past year coming out and saying we are going to lower tuition at least 2 percent,” Pellett said. “We’re working closely with the legislature, hoping they keep our appropriation the same.”

However, Glenville State is only one of West Virginia’s institutions moving in that direction.

“(The colleges) do a lot of initiatives in terms of helping students know what track they’re on and if they’re taking the right courses,” Weingart said. “We’ve already done a lot of work on transfers, so when students transfer, we’re trying to make sure that those courses they took at the other institution meet the requirements of their new institution so they don’t have to retake those courses.”

As of 2017’s graduating class, West Virginia’s average student loan debt is around $27,000, a figure that Weingart says has steadily increased.

“We’re still below the national average. The national average is around $37,000, and West Virginia is around $27,000, so we’re well below, but it gradually increases each year,” he said.

One factor that has contributed to the annual increase is that students are taken longer beyond the “traditional” four years to receive their diplomas. In fact, Weingart said only 50 percent of West Virginia’s college students are able to graduate within a six year period.

In effort to increase that statistic, Weingart said the Higher Education Policy Commission has multiple initiatives in place to help students faster reach graduation, which in turn helps lower the overall cost.

“We have a ’15 to finish,’ where we encourage students to take 15 credits each semester so they can graduate within four years,” he said. “The minimum to be full time is 12, but if students only take 12, they’ll never graduate within four years, so we encourage them to get in and get out as quickly as possible.”

Pellett said the answer to making college affordable for students is for the institutions and legislation to work together so that state funding for colleges and universities is not cut.

“Frankly, institutions cannot sustain additional cuts and students cannot sustain additional tuition increases,” he said.

That struggle is why West Virginia has not only the highest student loan debt but also the highest rate of student loan default. Pellett said that is felt not only by the individual students but the economy as a whole.

“It’s tough for them to pay it back and so what’s happened is, by disinvesting in higher education, one we’re creating a new class of indentured servants, frankly, because they’re going to have to be paying these loans back,” he said. “Secondly, they’re not able to get car loans and house loans, and if they do, it’s easier for them to get into financial trouble.”

In the face rising tuition costs throughout the country, with scholarships and student loans not reaching as far, Pellett hopes to see West Virginia’s other institutions follow their lead in making college affordable for all families.

“Now people should be asking, ‘How is Glenville doing this?’ and I will tell you,” Pellett said. “First of all you’ve got to have the will to do it, so you have to have the mindset that we’re looking for savings.

“Secondly, we’ve tightened our belts, but more importantly we’re becoming more efficient at every single facet of our operation — better course scheduling, energy consumption and all of those things that add up just like a family budget,” he said. “Thirdly, we believe that if we do this, more students will stay here and we’ll attract more of those rural, first-generation students.”

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