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Lawmakers stress non-public-school student inclusion in free college bill

The governor- and Senate-president-backed free community college bill was taken up Thursday in its first legislative committee, where members questioned when or whether the benefit would be available to private school and home-school students.

The Senate Education Committee meeting came a day after the West Virginia community college system’s chancellor told the House Education Committee that her colleges’ average tuition had jumped 31 percent over a half-decade while their headcount enrollment had dropped by a cumulative 23 percent.

Senate Education Chairman Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, said he ended Thursday’s meeting on Senate Bill 284 because of time constraints and expects the measure to be out of his committee by Tuesday.

In Thursday’s meeting, Sen. Robert Karnes, who has eight children who are either still being or were home-schooled, asked James Bailey, senior counsel for Republican Gov. Jim Justice, how “to fix this obvious error that we’ve built into the system.” He was referring to the possible exclusion of non-public school students.

Karnes, R-Upshur, noted that the bill bans people younger than 20 from taking advantage of the free college offer unless they go through an “Advanced Career Education” program that seems to be centered on public schools.

Bailey responded that non-public school students may currently attend public career and technical education schools, which are traditionally considered part of the prekindergarten through 12th-grade public education system, if there’s room available. But Karnes disagreed with Bailey’s suggestion that there have not been issues with a lack of room.

Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, also asked about the issue.

“If we have West Virginia students who are not in public school and not getting a diploma, they are not going to qualify for the ACE program?” Rucker asked.

Following the questions from Rucker and Karnes, Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, said he reads the bill as already being open to private-schoolers, but he suggested ensuring that the program is open to all students.

“We need to get these issues out of the way,” Plymale said.

Bailey suggested that could come through another piece of legislation, but Plymale disagreed with that approach.

Karnes said he had heard concerns about free community college just being used as a stepping stone to 4-year college degrees, and asked if the education tracks offered through the program would be narrow enough to prevent that.

In a post-meeting interview, he said four-year institutions apparently fear that students spending two years at cheaper community colleges would cut into their funding.

“The four-year institutions may have a valid point,” Karnes said, but he added that this might be preventable through rulemaking.

He suggested a better argument for preventing using it as a stepping stone is that, if the purpose of the bill is to get students faster into the workforce, going onto four-year colleges “is not getting into the workforce,” but he said he’s just willing to look at the issue and didn’t have a stance yet.

Rucker also asked what would happen to the free community college idea if costs increase — the bill doesn’t mandate a certain level of funding. Committee Counsel Hank Hager said he believes it would work like the state’s Promise Scholarship.

The Promise Scholarship, given to students based on academic performance, once fully paid for college tuition, but it no longer does.

In a presentation to House Education on Wednesday, Sarah Tucker, chancellor of the state’s Community and Technical College System, said community college tuition has increased, on average, $1,000 in the past five years.

“That is a 31 percent increase, and it is a sticker shock for our students,” Tucker said.

She said she thinks the tuition jump is a major reason behind the drop in total headcount at the state’s nine community colleges from 34,300 in the 2012-13 academic year to 26,300 last academic year, a drop of 23 percent over five years.

“I think that our residents are not able to pay,” Tucker said.

That drop of 8,000 students is double the enrollment last academic year of any single community college, except for Blue Ridge, which had 6,800 students. Eastern had the lowest enrollment, at 900 students, and Tucker said that school has nine full-time faculty members.

She said that, for the first time, the average tuition in West Virginia, now at $3,936, is higher than the Southern Regional Educational Board average of $3,845. The SREB includes 16 states, generally in the South.

She said the average age of her students is 29, and about 54 percent are part-time students. She said her system receives just 2 percent of the state’s Promise Scholarship funds.

Despite the enrollment drop, her presentation noted that her system awarded 4,760 associate’s degrees or certificates last academic year, up 27 percent from five years before. She said including the bachelor’s degrees awarded by West Virginia University’s Parkersburg campus — it’s the only campus in the system that offers bachelor’s degrees — raises the number close to 5,000 for the last academic year.

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com, facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

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