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Free Community College Bill Clears First Hurdle

CHARLESTON — An effort led by the president of the West Virginia Senate to make community and technical colleges free for in-state students was unanimously passed out of the Senate Education Committee Tuesday.

A committee substitute making technical changes to Senate Bill 1, “increasing access to career education and workforce training,” easily passed out of the committee chaired by Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson. The bill’s next stop is the Senate Finance Committee.

The bill is nearly identical to one unanimously passed by the Senate last year, but that legislation died in the House of Delegates.

Hank Hager, counsel for the Senate Education Committee, said the bill would establish a “last-dollar-in” program that would kick in for students wishing to attend a community and technical college two-year program. The state would kick in additional money for the student after federal Pell Grants or any other kind of financial aid. Students would also need to apply for a degree program where there is a workforce need, which would be determined by the state Department of Commerce.

The proposed program would require drug testing every semester to ensure the student is ready to enter the workforce drug free. There would also be an eight-hour community service requirement.

Students who complete the program would be required to work in the state for two years or pay the money back to the state.

“It requires each grant recipient to enter into an agreement that requires repayment of any grants awarded to the recipient If a recipient decides to reside outside the state within two years following obtainment of the degree,” Hager said.

Sarah Tucker, chancellor of the Community and Technical College System, said her office is supportive of the bill. Tucker told the committee that enrollment in the state’s community and technical colleges is down by 25 percent over the last five years.

Tennessee, which was the model for SB 1, saw a 20 percent increase in enrollment after enacting the legislation, Tucker said.

“I know that we have the capacity because we’ve had this number of students through our doors before,” Tucker said. “If this bill were to pass, those institutions would be receiving increased tuition and fee revenue and that increased tuition and fee revenue could be supplementing the staff they might need.”

The program wouldn’t just cover the cost of two-year degrees, but also certificates, which is where Tucker said these kinds of programs are seeing the most growth.

“In the higher ed sector, the most rapid growth we’re seeing is at the certificate levels,” Tucker said. “Over the last few years at the community and technical college level, we’ve seen more than a 20 percent increase in certificate growth.”

Even though the bill unanimously passed, Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, said he plans to draft an amendment that would also include apprenticeship programs managed by trade unions.

“If we’re trying to look at all training opportunities, (unions) do a really good job and they should be working more closely, and the community colleges working more closely with them,” Plymale said.

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