PARKERSBURG - With little fanfare or warning, the federal government has cut a scholarship program founded by the late West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd.
The $42 million Robert C. Byrd Honors Scholarship program, which bestows $1,500-a-year grants for four undergraduate years to top performing students, was cut from the federal 2012 budget. According to Ed.Gov, the program in 2010 awarded new scholarship to 7,348 students nationally, totaling more than $11 million. According to the site the program was funding scholarships for an estimated 28,000 students throughout the United States.
Education officials Tuesday said they learned of the demise of the Byrd Honors Scholarship through various media channels, but have received little to no official word from the federal government.
Angela Bell, a research and planning analyst for the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, said 116 West Virginia students are currently receiving the scholarship. No new scholarships will be given this year.
Bell said the state commission has chosen to fund those 116 students for one more year using state money.
"We didn't want them to be left in the lurch," she said. "We are going to be sending them letters letting them know they will receive the scholarship for one more year."
Bell said the agency also will send letters to all students nominated this year for the scholarship to let them know the program has ended due to funding cuts.
"I think in general the agency is disappointed to see any education funds cut," she said.
Bell said state officials contacted federal education agencies and were told to wait for guidance.
"We still haven't heard anything back," she said.
Local principals said the loss of the scholarship is disappointing and sends a mixed message to high-achieving students.
"We are saying to students who work hard and achieve, 'Oh well, too bad, your loss,'" said Ralph Board, principal of Parkersburg High School. "I understand money is tight. I just wish someone would have informed us."
Parkersburg South High School Principal Tom Eschbacher said the loss of the scholarship also ends years of tradition.
"Every year we honored someone with that scholarship," he said. "I'm sorry to hear that it lost its funding, but at the same time I'm not surprised. With the state of our federal government and the economy, the cuts have to come from someplace.
"It's a shame. That's one more missed opportunity for kids here," Eschbacher said.
This doesn't mark the first time the program has been on the federal chopping block. Several times before the scholarship program had been cut from the president's budget, but Byrd managed to restore funding.
Without Byrd, however, the program had no defense. Officials with President Barack Obama's administration said since the program was designed for high achieving students, those students likely will receive grants, scholarships and financial aide from other sources.
Williamstown High School Principal Pat Peters said that may not be enough.
"Especially for students going to an out-of-state school, there are still a lot of financial obligations. Every little bit helps," he said. "When you are able to pick up a scholarship that isn't based on you going in-state, it helps."