CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Sarah Armstrong Tucker, West Virginia’s higher education chancellor, became aware a while back of a problem that alarmed her.
More than 40,000 West Virginia children are living in homes away from their biological or adoptive parents, and they have a frustrating roadblock to applying for federal financial college aid.
If there is no relationship with the parents, there’s no available W-2.
And, so, a roadblock.
“Let’s say I’m a kid, my parents are addicted to drugs and my grandma and grandpa take me in,” Tucker said. “If grandma and grandpa haven’t taken legal custody of me in some way, when I go to fill out my FAFSA — which is what I need in order to receive federal financial aid and state aid — I can’t fill it out because I don’t have access to my parents’ W-2s.”
And that federal financial aid likely represents the gateway to a stable, successful future.
There are some exceptions that could make the W-2 unnecessary, Tucker said.
Those include if the student has been declared homeless, has joined the military, has a baby, has been adopted, has been in the foster care system — “but we still have thousands and thousands of students in the state where that’s not the case,” Tucker said.
Students aren’t considered “independent” for federal financial aid until they’re 24, she said.
“You just sort of give up because there’s not a lot of information available about your options,” Tucker said.
“I want students to know that they can contact the institution they want to go to, and the institution can give the some steps to get an override from the federal government. But students aren’t being told that they need to contact the institution and go through these steps.”
Tucker is hopeful that a bill that was introduced in the House of Delegates will help provide greater flexibility with state financial aid programs.
“Many of our state financial aid programs require that the students fill out the FAFSA. If we come to find out the student can’t fill out the FAFSA because of this home situation it provides our office some leeway in making exceptions for those students,” she said.
A bill introduced by Delegate Ruth Rowan, R-Hampshire, might help.
It’s House Bill 4737, which has the zippy title “Clarifying student eligibility for state-sponsored financial aid” and a set of bipartisan co-sponsors. It was assigned to House Education on Feb. 7 but hasn’t been considered by the committee yet.
It states that the qualifications for state financial aid are different from the qualifications for federal financial aid because of the inability of many West Virginia students to complete the FAFSA “because of extenuating family circumstances.”
The bill begins by stating, “Although enrollments in institutions of higher education in this state and throughout the nation continue to increase at a rapid pace, West Virginia has not developed sufficiently the state’s human talent and resources because many able, but needy, students are not able to finance a higher education program.”
“One of the problems our grandparents are having is helping their grandchildren to get scholarships. This bill will help them,” Rowan said.
“There’s certain paperwork that has to be filled out, and it requires parents’ permission. The grandparents more or less have their hands tied. They can’t go ahead and proceed with pursuing a scholarship. This will address that.”
Rowan said the problem became apparent to her after she heard from Bonnie Dunn, leader of the Healthy Grandfamilies program. Rowan later spoke with Chancellor Tucker, who had presented before the House Finance Committee and indicated she was aware of the same problem.
“There’s so many families where grandparents are actually raising the grandchildren. This is one of so many situations that happen where grandparents don’t have the custody and they can’t fill out the necessary paperwork,” Rowan said.
“We might have an intelligent child wanting to go to college, but they fall through the cracks simply for this reason.”
She concluded, “We don’t want this generation to fall through the cracks.”