For the second year, West Virginia senators are pushing a bill to make in-state community college tuition free. They’ve succeeded in getting the bill (SB 1) to the full Senate floor less than two weeks into the legislative session.
That’s similar to what they did last year — but the House of Delegates never took the bill up. It’s unclear whether the new House speaker will push it more this time around.
House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, is of the same mindset he was on Jan. 8, House spokesman Jared Hunt wrote in an email Friday.
“I don’t know if community college is the right thing to support,” Hanshaw said in a news conference that day. “We will be on board with proposals that expand access and opportunities for workforce training.”
Hunt wrote Friday that “in addition to the bill the Senate is working on, there are also other proposals being introduced in the House, including expanding the Promise scholarship in a way that covers community and technical education. House leaders will be working with members in the coming weeks to see which path has the support of the majority of members and can pass this session.”
Four-year and community college-goers can use the state’s Promise scholarship if they meet the academic and other criteria, but only 3 percent of Promise earners went to public community colleges in 2016-17, the latest academic year for which data is available. Students must apply for the scholarship within two years of high school graduation, making it out of reach for many adults.
As it did last year, the bill contains requirements for the free community college tuition that some experts have criticized: passing drug tests before each semester and staying in West Virginia for at least two years after getting a certification or degree.
Before the bill leaves the Senate, Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said Democrats plan to try to get Republicans to support two or three amendments. One would expand the bill to also give free tuition for students to pursue associate’s degrees offered by some four-year colleges, including Fairmont State University in Prezioso’s district.
Prezioso also said he’s considering trying to scale back the requirement for students to pass drug tests.
“We’re not sure we want to offer that amendment or not,” he said.
But he did say, if someone is dealing with the stress of college and drug issues and backslides, “why do you penalize that person when they’re in that stressful situation? You’re going to kick ’em out of that program and give them no chance? Isn’t the idea to give people a chance?”
The Senate Education Committee passed SB 1 Tuesday. No members officially offered amendments for consideration beyond the “committee substitute,” a replacement of the introduced version.
The replacement, most notably, said students couldn’t get free tuition to attend private community colleges. Senate Education members accepted the committee substitute without voicing any objections.
So it went in the Senate Finance Committee Thursday: Senators didn’t object to replacing Senate Education’s committee substitute with another more minor committee substitute, and no one offered further amendments before passing the bill to the full Senate. The Senate will likely consider amendments on Tuesday.
Prezioso expressed his support in the Senate Finance meeting for expanding the free tuition to cover those associate’s degrees at four-year schools, but after the committee reconvened from a break at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, it passed the bill after no members offered amendments.
“We got back in there and kind of looked around, they had all their members there,” Prezioso said (the Republicans weren’t all there, but the Democrats were outnumbered). He said he decided it was “an exercise in futility” to try to amend the bill in the committee, so he chose to wait to debate amendments on the Senate floor.
Prezioso said Senate President Mitch Carmichael, who’s vocally backed the bill both years, told him Republicans wouldn’t accept any amendments.
Carmichael, R-Jackson, said Friday he didn’t say that. He did say Prezioso approached him about an amendment — he couldn’t recall what it concerned — and he told the top Senate Democrat that “I’d rather that one not be in.”
“We’ll thoughtfully consider any amendments,” Carmichael said.
The Republican Senate leader said he wants the bill to focus more on getting students jobs quickly. He said secondary, community colleges and four-year schools need to “stay in their lane” regarding their respective missions, and, when they start taking resources from one another, “it degrades the entire system.”
Of Prezioso’s proposed expansion of the bill to cover associate’s degrees at four-year schools, Carmichael said, “It distorts the system and explodes the fiscal note.”
Matt Turner, executive vice chancellor for administration for the state’s higher education oversight agencies, said the Community and Technical College System hasn’t estimated what Prezioso’s proposal would cost. The current bill’s cost has been estimated at about $7 million or $8 million annually.
Public community college headcount enrollment dropped 9 percent last academic year from the year before. Four-year colleges saw a 3 percent drop in headcount enrollment from last fall to this fall, but their first-time freshmen enrollment dropped 9 percent. And presidents of both four-year and community colleges have expressed concern about enrollment competition between the systems and among colleges in each system.