West Virginia House of Delegates Passes Free Community College Bill

Photo by W.Va. Legislative Services West Virginia Delegates Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, left, and Evan Worrell, R-Cabell, look on during a floor session this week.

CHARLESTON — One local lawmaker voted against providing free college tuition for qualifying students at the state’s technical colleges as the legislation passed out of the West Virginia House of Delegates on Wednesday.

“West Virginia currently faces a human capital crisis, as the state regularly ranks amongst the lowest states in the nation in workforce participation rates,” Senate Bill 1 states. “Improving the state’s workforce participation rates and the level of the workforce’s career education is critical to economic development and making West Virginia a more prosperous state.”

SB 1 was approved Wednesday by a vote of 85-13, with no discussion and with all local delegates except Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, voting in favor. If the Senate approves of the House changes to the bill, it will go to the governor’s desk.

“Large businesses were advocating for this bill in order to externalize their costs for training new employees onto the taxpayer,” McGeehan said. “If a private business wants more trained employees, then they should cover the cost for such training.

“There has also been an overall drive here to make college free of charge–which has been pushing tuition prices up higher–and this is just another step towards that end that will create expensive unintended consequences down the road.”

The legislation would provide for the formation of partnerships between public secondary schools and community and technical colleges and the establishment of Advanced Career Education programs.

Both the ACE and the West Virginia Invests Grant Program aim to get high school students and adult learners certificates or two-year degrees in high-demand job fields in the state.

The House amended the bill Tuesday to include not just the state’s nine community and technical colleges, but also the two-year programs available at six colleges and universities in the state. The amendment raises the price tag of the program from $7.5 million to $9.9 million.

Mike Koon, interim president at West Virginia Northern Community College, said the school is “excited about the possibilities inherent in SB 1.”

“We view SB 1 as an investment in the future of the state, as the Legislature is investing in educating individuals with skills they need to have successful careers in the state,” he said. “The last-dollar-in provides support for students who want to enter high-demand occupations, many of which are associated with new jobs related to the oil and gas industry, the crackers, and spinoff industry. There are also provisions to strengthen the connections of community and technical colleges with secondary programs and with apprenticeship programs, and we see these as positive actions which also increase opportunities for students.”

Students receiving a “WV Invests Grant” would receive the cost of tuition for coursework leading to completion of the chosen associate degree or certificate, minus all other state and federal scholarships and grants for which the student is eligible, according to the proposed legislation. To be eligible, a person must be a citizen or legal resident of the United States and a resident of West Virginia for at least one year . They are required to be age 18, have completed a secondary education program in a public, private or home school, and have not been previously awarded a post-secondary degree.

The legislation requires the student to be drug tested each semester, to take at least six credit hours a semester, and to dedicate eight hours of community service during the time of study with a nonprofit, governmental, institutional or community-based organization. They would also need to remain in the state for two years after completing their studies or be forced to pay back the full cost of the grant.

The bill, a passion project for Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, unanimously passed out of the Senate on Jan. 23. He said the House’s $2.5 million increase shouldn’t cause issues in the Senate.

“It doesn’t make or break it,” Carmichael said. “We’ll take a look at it and make sure it doesn’t impact anything else negatively. We’re thrilled that the House agrees with the Senate’s objective of providing community and technical college education to the workforce across West Virginia to incentivize our students, parents and people who want to return to the workforce to go get the jobs that are necessary to support our economy.”

Carmichael also introduced a similar bill to SB 1 in 2018 which passed the Senate but did not make it out of the House.

“I’m thrilled,” Carmichael said. “It’s been a two-year effort. This is the type of a bill that can fundamentally change the economy of West Virginia. We have a lot of jobs available, but the workforce needs some additional training. It lifts people out of poverty; people who want to return to the workforce, but perhaps lost a job for one reason or another. Now they can get a job without a huge financial obligation.”

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