Gazette editorial: Ground lost on college-going culture

Higher Education Chancellor Paul Hill shared some disturbing news in a meeting with Gazette-Mail editors last week: West Virginia has lost significant ground on the rate of high school graduates going on to college.

As of five years ago, West Virginia had worked up to 61.5 percent of students going on to college after high school, close to the national average of 63 percent. Since then, that rate has dropped to about 55 percent, where it was 15 years ago.

This is happening despite the continuing projections that most jobs in the future will require some college and an increasing number will require a bachelor’s degree.

What’s going on?

Certainly the economic downturn might be a factor, although it made education more desirable than ever.

Hill thinks that at least part of the problem is price, or rather perceived price.

Students consistently overestimate the cost of college. It is as if students are scared off by the sticker price, not factoring in possible financial aid, such as the PROMISE Scholarship, the state program which goes to students based on merit, and the state Higher Education Grant, which goes to students based on need. The neediest students, often the ones most discouraged by the price tag, are the most likely to qualify for help. A third of students can get through with no tuition cost at all.

(Interestingly for West Virginia, students who are aided through those programs tend to stay in the state, 61 percent for PROMISE recipients and 66 percent for grant recipients. Among the PROMISE recipients who left the state, most have come back.)

Students who have turned away from further education may also be influenced by recent talk questioning the value of a college degree and national news about even higher college costs in other states and at prestigious and private universities.

Happily, when Hill and his staff spend time with elementary and middle school students, they find that students’ understanding and aspirations grow.

A federally funded program called GEAR-UP sends people into elementary schools where they teach students about getting ready for college or other post-secondary education. It covers things like dreaming about what you want to be when you grow up and what classes to take, but also the process, even down to vocabulary that college graduates take for granted — professor, dormitory, credit hour. As those students grow up, they mentor their peers.

“We want to create a college-going culture,” Hill said.

Amen to that.

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