CHARLESTON -- Patrick Sheehan returned to Marshall University four years ago as a recovering drug addict given a second chance.
With the help of grants, scholarships and loans, the 47-year-old Huntington resident has been able to pay his tuition and maintain a 3.66 grade point average.
"It's amazing that someone in my position was given this opportunity," the senior radio-television major said. "On the other hand, ... I'm concerned about the loans. I'm standing right now owing $9,000."
Sheehan is among an increasing number of West Virginia college students dependent on financial aid to pay for their educations.
When West Virginia's 68,813 college students returned to school last year, 71 percent were there because of a loan or other financial assistance, according to the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission.
During the 1990s, the percentage of students dependent on such aid grew by 37 percent. Nationally, the number of undergraduates receiving aid is 49.7 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics in Washington, D.C.
The pervasiveness of these loans, while making a college education possible for many people, also may make it more difficult for West Virginia to address a continuing problem: the loss of many of its best and most talented people, the ones most likely to help rejuvenate a teetering economy.
With their own increased debt and West Virginia's flat economy, many students say they have little choice but to leave the state.
"Students aren't incurring debt they can't handle," said Jack Toney, director of student financial aid at Marshall. "But once they graduate, if they can't find employment in the state, they will have to seek it elsewhere to repay their loans."
Brandy Barkey, 23, of Point Pleasant has used loans to finance most of her education. When the Marshall senior graduates next year, she will owe nearly $20,000.
"My parents made money but not enough to put two kids through school. ... I have a brother in college, too," Barkey said.
Dependence on financial aid has paralleled soaring college costs. Students in West Virginia are paying 30 percent more for their public college education now than they did a decade ago, after adjusting for inflation, The New York-based College Board reported last year.
Still, the higher costs in West Virginia have been minimal compared to those nationally, said Brenda Thompson, financial aid director at West Virginia University
"A college education in West Virginia is still a bargain," she said. "Tuition is about a thousand dollars less than at public institutions elsewhere."
During the '90s, the number of undergraduates in West Virginia colleges increased slightly from 68,610 in 1990 to 68,813 in 1999.
At the same time, the number of college graduates in West Virginia has climbed from 12 percent in 1990 to about 16 percent in 1998, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
A new statewide financial aid task force, created by higher education reform legislation passed earlier this year, has until November 2001 to complete its report addressing the number of college graduates in the state. Other study items include the impact of student and prepaid admission programs, the programs' interrelationships and the effectiveness of grants versus loans.
The group also will look at student aid for the past 15 years.
"Parents have a more difficult time financing higher education," said Toney, a task force member. "Families are finding they need to borrow more than they did in the past because of the economic climate in the state."
Students at colleges in other southern states also are receiving more financial aid than their counterparts elsewhere.
In Tennessee, about 53 percent of college students receive aid. The rate climbs to 80 percent in Mississippi where the average award in 1998-99 was $5,489 per student, said Karyn Smith, marketing coordinator for the Mississippi Institution of Higher Learning.
In West Virginia, the average financial aid package in 1998-99 was $6,154, a 20 percent increase over the $5,317 students received five years ago.
During that time, Marshall students have seen undergraduate tuition and fees increase to $1,310 a semester this fall for West Virginia residents and $3,412 a year for nonresidents. Room and board averages about $4,800 a year.
Instate tuition for undergraduates at WVU is $1,328 a semester. Room and board averages about $5,100 a year.
As an out-of-state resident at WVU, Stephanie Jagoda, 19, pays $4,091 per semester in tuition and fees.
"I'll probably owe about $50,000 by the time I graduate," said the junior from Washington, Pa. "I'm trying not to think about it."
Even parents who tried to plan ahead have found themselves unprepared.
Dave Thomas, corporate affairs manager for Mettiki Coal in Oakland, Md., thought an insurance policy purchased when his children were toddlers would cover their college costs.
"It didn't come close," said Thomas, whose son is making plans for law school and his daughter just graduated. "We're looking at paying back more than $70,000 in loans. And with law school, my son could be looking at another $100,000. There's no good way to plan for that kind of expense."
In the 1998-99 school year, 48,857 of the 68,813 students attending college in West Virginia were awarded nearly $301 million in financial aid. Federal programs, mostly loans, accounted for nearly 71 percent of the awards.
Twenty years ago, Pell Grants, which now are awarded only to the neediest students, comprised 76 percent of all federal funding, according to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C.
"The imbalance between loans and grants has increased substantially," Toney said.
As the loans increase, the number of students defaulting reached 9.3 percent in West Virginia last year, exceeding the national average of 8.8 percent, the U.S. Department of Education said.
Nearly 1,500 borrowers who attended one of 59 post-secondary schools in West Virginia were in default -- 17.3 percent at Southern West Virginia Community College; 12.2 percent at West Virginia State; 11.9 percent at Marshall and 6.1 percent at WVU.
More students became eligible for federal financial aid programs in the mid-90s after Congress restored cuts incurred during the Reagan administration.
One of the changes removed the family home from consideration as an asset, Thompson said.
"After that provision was removed, we saw a rather dramatic increase," she said. "A lot of it also has to do with the fact that families don't save as much as they used to."