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updated 5/27/2004 3:28:02 PM ET 2004-05-27T19:28:02

West Virginia is among the top 15 states when it comes to per capita spending on college grants and scholarships, a recent report shows.

West Virginia spent a total of $38.2 million on scholarships and grants in 2002-2003, or about $220 for every 18-24 year old in the state that year, according to a survey released this week by the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs.

"Few states can meet our commitment to both need-based and merit-based aid," Robert Morgenstern, spokesman for the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, said Wednesday. "West Virginia is making a wise investment in its future."

West Virginia also ranked 16th in the country in the percentage of its higher education budget spent on financial aid. The state spent $72.5 million in 2002-2003 on financial aid, including about $19.2 million on need-based aid, $19 million on merit-based aid and $34.3 million on other aid, such as tuition waivers and work-study.

From 2001-2002 to 2002-2003, the state hiked its grant and scholarship spending by 81.3 percent to fund the first PROMISE Scholarship class. During that same time, need-based aid, including funding for the Higher Education Grant program, dropped about 9 percent from $21 million to $19.2 million.

Still, West Virginia college students have more financial aid options than their counterparts in some other states. Alaska and South Dakota, for example, only offer loans that must be repaid.

Grants and scholarships, which are gifts, often are considered key to removing barriers for low-income students whose families shy away from loans.

Nationwide, state spending on grants and scholarships increased about 70 percent from 1997 to 2003. During that time, West Virginia increased such aid from $5.9 million to $38.2 million, a jump of 214 percent, according to the survey.

Such aid is considered even more important as colleges and universities are forced to hike tuition as states struggle with budget deficits.

College students in West Virginia will pay as much as 17 percent more in total tuition and fees next school year under increases adopted earlier this year.

"The money we've invested in PROMISE and in the Higher Education Grant program is pretty good for a state that has limited resources," said Brenda Thompson, assistant vice president for enrollment management at West Virginia University.

"When PROMISE came about, Gov. Wise and the Legislature cut back on need-based aid as little as possible. I think that has been beneficial. The neediest students who quality for both can keep both."

Larger states like New York, which spent $854 million on financial aid in the survey period, dedicate a larger percentage of their dollars on need-based aid than West Virginia. Still, Thompson said she believes West Virginia needs both.

"I don't think it's a mistake to spend money on both," she said. "There are some students receiving PROMISE that by the federal definition are not needy. However, PROMISE gives students something to strive for. The state overall has seen increases in test scores as a result."

Jerry Beasley, president of Concord University in Athens, said West Virginia has stretched its resources so that it could provide both need-based aid and merit-based aid.

"The most positive thing we've done in recent years is substantially increase our college-going rate," Beasley said. "Collectively, we can be proud of the progress that's been made in getting people in our colleges and universities. A large part of that is the state's investment in financial aid."

For the fiscal year that begins July 1, the state earmarked $27 million for PROMISE, about $4 million for the Higher Education Adult Part-Time Student Grant program and about $22 million for other need-based state grants, including the Higher Education Grant.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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