West Virginia delegates gave a dubious distinction Thursday to legislation aimed at encouraging students, or their parents or guardians, to file the central application for unlocking free funding for college.
House Bill 2702, which urged completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) was rejected by the House of Delegates, making it the first bill voted down by either the full House or full Senate this year.
While several bills have died in committees, HB 2702 became the first to reach passage stage and be voted down in either legislative chamber.
Thursday marked the 44th day of the 60-day legislative session.
In West Virginia and other states, the FAFSA is the gateway to securing federal and state financial aid for college.
The money it unlocks includes, among other things, federal Pell Grants for low-income students who want to attend four-year colleges or community colleges.
It also unlocks West Virginia’s free community college tuition program that Republicans passed in 2019. A completed FAFSA is also required, alongside sufficient grades and test scores, to earn the Promise Scholarship.
As late as last month, nearly 20% fewer West Virginia high school seniors had submitted the FAFSA compared to the same time last year. That decrease was about double the average drop nationwide, and second only to the 21% drop in Tennessee, according to the U.S. Education Department.
The bill failed on a 56-42 vote. House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, supported the legislation, alongside 21 other Republicans and 20 of the House’s 23 Democrats.
House Education Committee Vice Chairman Joshua Higginbotham, R-Putnam, defended the bill, which he co-sponsored.
Higginbotham noted, as the state’s higher education chancellor has previously said, that students have been surprised by how much financial support they qualify for once they actually fill out this application. He said West Virginians need more two- and four-year degrees.
“And that is only possible for impoverished people with federal and state aid,” he said. He said Louisiana and Texas had seen immediate increases in college applications after passing similar bills.
Delegate Cody Thompson, D-Randolph, said the bill would ensure students are aware of the funding available to them.
However, 53 Republicans voted against it, joined by three Democratic delegates: Nathan Brown, D-Mingo, Ed Evans, D-McDowell, and Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia.
Several top Republican leaders cast “no” votes, including House Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor; former House Education Committee chairman and current House Majority Whip Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson; and Speaker Pro Tempore Gary Howell, R-Mineral.
Two delegates were absent: Roy Cooper, R-Summers, and Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh.
Multiple Republicans stood on the House floor Thursday to describe the legislation as an overreach, despite it not actually mandating people to fill out the form.
The rejected bill said that, for a student to graduate a public high school, one of their parents, guardians or the student themselves (if age 18 or legally emancipated) would have to either submit a FAFSA or a form saying they were choosing not to submit it.
High schools would be required to assist in completing either the financial aid application or the opt-out form.
If neither of those criteria were met, a county board of education would still be allowed, to give students their high school diplomas.
The school board would just have to say there were “extenuating circumstances” and back that up with a statement from the high school principal, saying the school tried to help.
Delegate Laura Kimble, R-Harrison, said “this is actually Big Brother at its worst.”
Delegate Dianna Graves, R-Kanawha, asked: If the public has been made aware of the importance of filling out the FAFSA but opts not to complete the form, “we’re going to overrule their private liberty decision to not fill this out?”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Moore Capito, R-Kanawha, pointed out the bill didn’t mandate filling out the application.
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