West Virginia’s new, free community college tuition program, West Virginia Invests, is now open for applications.
The state Community and Technical College System has unveiled a website, wvinvests.org, where students may apply.
Senate Bill 1, which created the program, said the certificates and degrees that students may receive free tuition for will be limited to those that “satisfy a workforce need as determined by the Department of Commerce.”
Click “Find a Program” at the top of wvinvests.org to see a list of the state’s public community colleges, and then click on a college to see which programs made the eligibility cut.
For example, here are certificates and associate’s degrees students may get for free at BridgeValley Community and Technical College:
- Accounting (this is only offered as an associate’s degree)
- Advanced manufacturing
- Chemical operations (only offered as a certificate, which generally takes less time than an associate’s)
- Computer maintenance and networking (certificate only)
- Computer science technology-software developer or web design (associate’s only)
- Criminal justice
- Culinary arts
- Dental hygiene (associate’s only)
- Diesel technology
- Early childhood education
- Electrical engineering (associate’s only)
- Emergency medical services (certificate only)
- Human services and rehabilitation studies-addictions or youth
- Nursing (associate’s only)
- Paralegal studies (associate’s only)
Michael Graney, executive director of the Commerce Department’s Development Office, said a list of academic programs was submitted to the department and, in choosing which programs were eligible for free tuition, “There was a determination of whether those programs would end up in a specific job.”
“So, there are just a handful of programs that are not necessarily included at this point,” Graney said.
He said excluded were programs with “lower participation” and those that “were more of a general associate’s degree or something like that, as opposed to a specific program, like a nursing program or a business degree, or environmental testing.”
Sarah Tucker, chancellor of the community college system, said, “General studies, liberal arts, those types of degrees all fell out.” She said most other academic programs were deemed eligible.
She said economic modeling software, which predicts job growth and need in the state, also was used, and colleges also could submit evidence that companies in their areas need certain programs.
Other than in-state, public community colleges, West Virginia public, primarily four-year colleges that also offer associate’s degrees may use the program to offer free tuition for those associate’s degrees.
But SB 1, which passed earlier this year, said four-year schools couldn’t charge more than the average community college rate for these programs. Tucker said four-year schools are still deciding whether to participate.
The program fills the gap between what existing federal and state grants and scholarships might provide to students and any tuition costs that remain after those grants and scholarships are factored in.
The website includes a link to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is the first step in applying for the free tuition program. There’s a separate link on the website to then apply for the actual program.
People of any age who have graduated from high school or home school, or have earned a high school equivalency degree, are eligible to apply.
But there are numerous criteria they must meet for eligibility. Among them are that students:
- Can’t already have received a college degree;
- Can’t be in default on a federal student loan;
- Must be a legal U.S. resident and have lived in West Virginia for at least one year immediately preceding the date they apply;
- Pay for and pass drug tests before each semester;
- Stay in West Virginia for at least two years after getting a certificate or degree (if they leave before then, they must repay part or all of the grant, unless exempted for something like military service or attending further higher education);
- Complete at least two hours of unpaid community service each academic term;
- Take at least six credit hours per semester (generally, that’s two classes);
- Maintain a cumulative grade point average of at least 2.0;
- Complete the FAFSA annually.
The community college system’s board passed Thursday, in a voice vote with no nays heard, an emergency rule implementing the program. It also put out for a 30-day public comment period a more permanent proposed rule that’s identical to the emergency rule.
Angie Kerns, the board’s liaison, said, if system employees determine that any suggestions received during public comments should be incorporated into the rule, they will come back before the board for another vote.
After that second vote, or if system staff members determine that no changes are warranted, the rule will go to the West Virginia Legislature, which may amend it before finalizing it.
Comments may be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or sent via traditional mail to 1018 Kanawha Blvd. E., Suite 700, Charleston, WV 25301. Address them to the Community and Technical College System, attention: Chancellor Tucker.
The proposed policy is expected to be available soon to read online at wvctcs.org/rules-policies.
Neither SB 1, nor the implementing rules, provide many details on how the drug testing will work — including what drugs, if detected, would make one temporarily ineligible for free tuition.
Tucker said the system is trying to get a statewide contract for the drug testing, to reduce costs for students, who must pay for that portion. She said she expects the drug policy to be on the board’s agenda.
Also Thursday, the board reviewed the tuition increases that community colleges are implementing for next academic year.
They range from no increases at Blue Ridge, Eastern and Pierpont to about 5 percent at Southern and West Virginia University at Parkersburg. BridgeValley’s tuition is rising 1 percent.
Overall, average annual tuition among all West Virginia public community colleges is increasing 2 percent to reach $4,100 next academic year. Southern’s tuition will be $3,900.
Southern President Bob Gunter said, “We’re not sure how much the free community college will kick in at this point.”
Gunter also said the pay-raise funding the Legislature and governor provided for next academic year did not provide Southern with enough money to give every college employee the same pay raise other state workers are getting. He said providing raises was the main reason for the tuition increase.
The extra funding was enough for state-funded college employees, but not ones funded by other revenue, such as tuition.
Parkersburg’s tuition will also be about $3,900 next academic year for its associate’s degree programs. Parkersburg also offers bachelor’s degrees, but at a higher cost.
Parkersburg President Chris Gilmer said, “It was really a decision to balance access for students with some enhancements we hope to make in program quality.”
Gilmer said the college is “exploring a new focus on experiential learning, which will allow our students not only to get internships at businesses out in the community but to do internships actually within the college.” He also said, “A number of our facilities are in need of updating.”
“We are hopeful that we won’t have any further tuition increases in the immediate future,” he said. He said he hopes to stabilize, and then increase, enrollment at the college.
Kerns also announced Thursday that board Chairman Bob Brown, an American Federation of Teachers lobbyist and a past president of the union’s West Virginia branch, was severely injured two weeks ago.
She said he was cutting a 120-foot-tall tree “when it went the wrong way and fell” on him. She said he’s been hospitalized since and would have extensive surgery on an arm and hand.
“His ulna and radius were crushed, his upper arm was broken, both his clavicle and his scapula were broken, he had four broken ribs on one side, two on the other and a collapsed lung,” Kerns said. “He was in eight hours of surgery that went well.”
She said he was set to have surgery the day of the meeting to rebuild his arm and that, if all goes well, he should be out of the hospital in another two weeks.