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FAFSA mess makes it even harder for WV students to get to college

More education typically, but not always, leads to higher incomes. There is plenty of research showing that individuals with associate or bachelor degrees or higher end up with better jobs and higher pay than their counterparts with only a high school diploma.

Nationally, about 62 percent of  high school (or equivalent) graduates go on to post-secondary education. In West Virginia, that figure for 2023 is 47 percent. That is a very slight improvement over the previous year, but still well below the national average.

West Virginia students often face stiff headwinds when considering college.

We have a cultural issue. For decades, West Virginians could earn a decent—but hard—living in coal mining or manufacturing.  A strong back and solid work ethic were more important than a college degree. However, many of those jobs have dried up. The new economy, which is just getting a decent foothold in the state, requires a more advanced skill set.

West Virginia is not a wealthy state, so the cost of college is often a factor. However, many of the state’s colleges and universities are trying to become more affordable.

For example, Marshall University has started a massive fund raising campaign to help students pay for college. Marshall President Brad Smith announced the program in 2022 with the bold prediction that “In ten years, no Marshall student will graduate with student debt.”

Two-year community and technical colleges are a bargain. West Virginia has a “last-dollar-in” financial aid program, the WV Invests Grant, to cover the cost of tuition and fees for certificate or associate degrees in specific high-demand fields.

But the challenge of opening higher education doors to more West Virginians has gotten even harder because of the FAFSA mess. FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Filling out the FAFSA form is a critical step in the going-to-college process because it is the gateway to financial assistance and essential to college applications.

Starting this year, the FAFSA process changed, supposedly for the better, but the rollout by the U.S. Department of Education was botched. First, there were long delays in the launch, and that was followed by a series of glitches, including the interface between the Education Department and the IRS, which caused a problem with 30 percent of the applications.

“It’s not calculating the student aid index correctly so those 30 percent will have to be kicked back and reprocessed,” said Higher Education Policy Commission Chancellor Dr. Sarah Armstrong Tucker. “We have a big crisis on our hands.”

HEPC, along with state colleges and universities, are working overtime to try to walk students and their families through the FAFSA process. That is time consuming and bound to miss some students and their families who simply become frustrated with the process and give up.

The pandemic kept some students away from college and enrollment was just starting to climb again, albeit modestly. The state’s economy desperately needs a trained workforce. Having more West Virginians with post-secondary education is a rising tide that lifts all boats.

The FAFSA debacle could not have come at a worse time.

 

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