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MORE THAN EVER, COLLEGE AID A DEVISIVE ISSUE

This is the latest in an ongoing series examining the issues,

 

records and platforms of West Virginia's candidates for governor. Today's

 

installment deals with higher education.

 

 

In the grand scheme of politics, an eye-glazing topic like

 

college financial aid usually fades amid shouts of

 

"Abortion!" and "Jobs!"

 

 

But when the candidates stand as close on issues as Gov. Cecil

 

Underwood and challenger Rep. Bob Wise, college aid can -

 

and has - emerged as arguably the most divisive issue in the

 

campaign.

 

 

Even more so, because Wise has dragged "gray" video poker machines into

 

the fray. He wants to legalize the payouts, tax the earnings and use the

 

money to buy college educations for West Virginia's smartest

 

children.

 

 

"That's the major source of revenue that I can see," Wise said.

 

 

Two years ago, Underwood signed a law authorizing Lincoln County Sen.

 

Lloyd Jackson's pet scholarship program, the PROMISE scholarship

 

(Providing Real Opportunity for Maximizing In-state Student Excellence).

 

He started appointing people to a PROMISE board of directors.

 

 

Then Wise hitched his gubernatorial hopes to the PROMISE plan.

 

Underwood now says he'd rather spend state money on need-based financial

 

aid for poor people to go to college, not grade-based

 

aid like PROMISE.

 

 

"If he cares so much about needs-based, fine," Wise said. "Tax the gray

 

machines ... I'd be happy to have some needs-based come out of that as

 

well."

 

 

Underwood did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment for this

 

  • tory.
  •  

     

    Wise's plan - otherwise known as Jackson's plan - would pay the entire

     

    tuition at any in-state college for every student who leaves high

     

  • chool with a "B" average. Students would have to maintain at least a B
  •  

    average in college to keep their scholarships.

     

     

    The whole thing would cost an estimated $25 million a year.

     

     

    Mountain Party candidate Denise Giardina vehemently opposes the PROMISE

     

  • cholarship.
  •  

     

    "I've been saying that ever since [Wise] has been talking about it,"

     

  • aid Giardina, a novelist who teaches literature part-time at West
  •  

    Virginia State College. "I think the grade thing is a really bad

     

    idea."

     

     

    High-school teachers would feel pressure to hand out "Bs" so they

     

    wouldn't mess up a kid's chance for a scholarship, Giardina said. And it

     

    might stop students from taking really difficult classes in high school.

     

     

    "I know kids well enough to know that some of them are going to dumb

     

    down on their schedule to get the 'B' average," she said.

     

     

    Giardina thinks using scholarships as an excuse to legalize video poker

     

    is "a horrible idea."

     

     

    "We should be banning gray machines," she said. "I think it's really a

     

    rapacious way for a government to make money."

     

     

    Libertarian candidate Bob Myers also opposes the PROMISE

  • cholarship.
  •  

     

    "It would set up a social caste in our school system," Myers said. "It

     

    used to be that the smart kids went to college, and the dumb kids

     

    went to trade school. We've gotten away from that, thank heaven. I think

     

    it would be a social regression."

     

     

    - - -

     

     

    Wise wants to be clear on one point. He does not want to do away with

     

    West Virginia's need-based college aid.

     

     

    "I want to fully fund needs-based," Wise said. "Maybe there should be a

     

    mix. Cap the PROMISE scholarship at $15 million until you are able to

     

    cover all the needs-based."

     

     

    West Virginia's need-based program, the Higher Education Grant Program,

     

    has run short on money every year of its life. This year, 2,500 eligible

     

  • tudents didn't get aid because the grant program ran out of money.
  •  

     

    Underwood has pledged huge funding increases for the grant program - $6

     

    million in 1999 and $7.6 million in 2000. But they never came about,

     

    although funding has gone up $1 million to $2 million every year since

     

    Underwood became governor.

     

     

    The head policy analyst for the national College Board agrees

     

    with Underwood that need-based aid is the way to go. Too many

     

  • tates are putting their money into merit-based scholarships, Larry
  •  

    Gladieux said.

     

     

    The problem is there's already a slew of private scholarships available

     

    for smart kids. So they're going to be able to go to college, no

     

    matter what. The kids who need the help, Gladieux said, are the ones with

     

    poorer, less educated parents who haven't been able to help them much with

     

    homework over the years, or haven't exposed them to educational

     

    opportunities, and can't help them pay for college.

     

     

    Giardina wants to put more money into the Higher Education Grant

     

    Program. Myers would abolish it, and instead issue vouchers that

     

  • tudents could use at any college.
  •  

     

    - - -

     

     

    There's one big drama going on in West Virginia higher education that

     

  • either Wise nor Underwood wants to call off: the fallout from Senate Bill
  •  

    653, the brainchild of a handful of very powerful legislators that has

     

  • ent colleges into a tizzy of fear and indignation.
  •  

     

    "I'm going to hold institutions, to the extent that I can through my

     

    appointments to governing boards, to the principles in 653," Wise said.

     

    "And at the end of the time, we'll have a community college system

     

    instituted."

     

     

    Wise agrees with the Legislature that to improve West Virginia's

     

    economy, the state should encourage more people to go to community

     

    college. A Colorado consultant hired by the Legislature reported

     

    that some of the state's community colleges aren't doing their jobs, and

     

    they should be taken away from the four-year colleges that spawned them.

     

     

    Four-year colleges don't like that idea, because community colleges

     

    generate a lot of money. The Legislature agreed to give the four-year

     

    colleges a year to prove that they can run things right. Wise wants to

     

    follow that plan.

     

     

    He doesn't want to let legislators use 653 as an excuse to build new

     

    community colleges in their district, as House Finance Chairman Harold

     

    Michael recently did in Hardy County.

     

     

    "I think anybody who's looking to build new bricks and mortar is going

     

    to be disappointed," Wise said.

     

     

    Myers said he would leave it up to a free market to determine whether

     

    the state needs more or better community colleges. Giardina said community

     

    colleges are more effective and efficient when they're attached to

     

    four-year colleges, so she'd just ignore the consultant's recommendation.

     

     

    "It's treated as a piece of pork for legislators to say, 'Let's build

     

    this in my district,'" she said. As for Michael's Eastern Community

     

    College, Giardina said she'd get the state out from under that

     

    before it wastes any more money.

     

     

    "It's a rip-off," she said.

     

     

    To contact staff writer Tara Tuckwiller, use e-mail or call 348-5189.

     

     


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