Chris Schulz Published

FAFSA Issues, College Going Rate And More Presented To LOCEA

A wide shot shows a meeting room. In the foreground are chairs with scattered observers sitting with them. In the midground is a table with two people seated at it and a large television screen hanging above the table. Beyond the table is a lectern in front of the well of a wooden horseshoe-shaped dias of desks where legislators are seated.
The Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability hears presentations April 14, 2024.
Will Price/WV Legislative Photography

A change to a federal financial aid form for college students is having major ripple effects through West Virginia’s higher education system. 

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) unlocks both federal and state financial aid for students but a recent attempt to simplify the form has caused delays for college applicants across the country.

“At this point this year, we have six million students who have filled out a FAFSA,” said Sarah Tucker, chancellor of the Higher Education Policy Commission. “At this point last year, we had 17 million, this is across the country. So we have a significant deficit right now that we’re trying to make up and trying to figure out exactly what’s going on and how best to help our students.”

Tucker told an interim meeting of the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability Sunday the Student Aid Index (SAI), which determines student need, is now being determined by a new interface between the IRS and the federal Department of Education that is not working correctly. Further delays occur because users of the new system are not notified of errors until after the form has been submitted.

Tucker told the commission the faulty SAI formula is causing delays for the state’s educational programs as well.

“I need to know how much money the federal government is going to be giving to all of our students in order to know what our award is going to be for West Virginia Invests,” she said.
“We’re really sort of stuck in limbo until this functionality gets fixed.”

The Higher Education Grant Program, West Virginia Invests and PROMISE Scholarships are all currently delayed. 

Nationally, West Virginia is faring slightly better than average with the new FAFSA. As of last month, more than 6,000 seniors across the state have filled out the form, a number Tucker credits to hundreds of FAFSA workshops the HEPC and other organizations have hosted.

“We’re actually ranking 20th in the number of high school seniors who have completed the FAFSA,” she said. “The West Virginia Department of Education has done a lot of work as have all of our institutions in trying to do FAFSA workshops to make sure that our students know how to fill out those forms.”

Tucker said West Virginia Invest and PROMISE may revert to awarding the same amounts as last year without adjustments to ensure students are not further delayed.

“I think that may be where we end up because I don’t want to keep stringing students along,” she said. “I want to do the best we can to make sure that they know that they can go to college. Our college going rate is finally ticking up. We have this great momentum.”

College Going Rate

The oversight commission also heard a report on the state’s college going rate from Zornitsa Georgieva, director of research and analysis for HEPC. She highlighted a one percent increase in post-secondary enrollment from 2022 to 2023, including enrollment in trade programs or other career and technical pathways.

“For the class of 2023, the college going grade is 47.4 percent,” Georgieva said. “We’ve had more than 7,900 high school graduates continue into some kind of post-secondary education this year. I think that really speaks for the hard work of high school staff, high school counselors, teachers, our staff in our secondary system, as well as post-secondary institutions and staff that works around outreach. And providing information about financial aid.”

In 2021 the national immediate college enrollment rate was 62 percent, which puts West Virginia 15 percent below the national average. “Immediate college enrollment” is the metric used by the National Center for Educational Statistics and looks at students who enrolled in a post-secondary institution the fall after graduation. 

Georgieva said when looking at the 12 months after graduation, including spring enrollments, West Virginia’s college going rate jumps to 49 percent. Rates differ from county to county, and 36 of 55 of West Virginia’s counties increased their college going rate year over year.

Benchmarks and Screeners

As part of House Bill 3035 – also known as the Third Grade Success Act – that passed last year, screeners or benchmark assessments must be administered at the beginning of the school year and repeated mid-year and at the end of the school year to determine student progression in reading and mathematics kindergarten through third grade.

Sonya White, state deputy superintendent, presented the results of the mid-year screeners to the commission.

“Overall, we were encouraged by the results, we had a decrease in the number of students… who needed that intensive intervention,” she said.

Even accounting for regular academic gains in the first half of the school year, White said the need for intensive intervention decreased from the start of the year to mid-year. She said the screeners are also identifying new students that need intensive interventions and are getting the help they need.

“On the front side are the literacy results,” White said. “We had an average decrease of 5.4 percent of students that needed intervention in grades K through three, and an average of 6 percent of the students in grades four through eight were scoring in the lowest category.”

White presented even higher decreases in intensive intervention for mathematics, “with an average of 6 percent for K through three and an average of 8.1 percent for four through eight.”

Del. Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, expressed concern at some of the numbers that showed an increase in the need for math intervention between first and second grade.

“Do we have schools looking at why there might be that big change from only 17 percent initially in first grade up to almost 40 percent when they get the second?” he said.

White cautioned that the state is still in its first year of collecting the data but theorized that those numbers could be a result of lowered learning opportunities three years ago during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are being proactive,” she said. “We are also looking at getting more detailed data for each section so we know what pieces of mathematics are struggling with.”

Policy 7212

Earlier in the meeting, legislators heard a brief description of changes to Department of Education Policy 7212. The policy applies to the transfer of students, both inside and out of their county of residence. 

Student transfers became a point of contention this past fall after legislation passed during the 2023 regular session changed eligibility rules for student athletes after transfer. Gov. Jim Justice and others urged the legislature to revisit the issue during this year’s legislative session, but no action was taken by the legislature.

The proposed changes to Policy 7212 include significant clarifications of the requirement for county boards of education to implement an open enrollment policy for nonresident students, including a new allowance for boards to revoke applicants for chronic absenteeism or behavioral infractions. There is no mention of athletics in the proposed changes.

The changes to 7212, as well as other policies, are open to public comment until May 13.