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Senate Finance advances free community college bill to full WV Senate

Free community college

Sarah Tucker, chancellor of the state Community and Technical College System, speaks to the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday.

West Virginia’s Senate Finance Committee, in a voice vote with no nays heard Wednesday evening, passed to the full Senate the free in-state community college bill backed by Republican Gov. Jim Justice and Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson.

The bill (Senate Bill 284) now heading to the Senate floor isn’t substantially different from the version the Senate Education Committee had passed to the Finance Committee Tuesday, according to Senate Finance counsel Chris Hunter.

The latest version is a “committee substitute” of Senate Education’s own “committee substitute” of the introduced version of the bill, and Senate Education had amended its own committee substitute before it sent it to Senate Finance.

The state Community and Technical College System provided a new fiscal note on the version of the bill Senate Education advanced, estimating it would cost $8 million next fiscal year. That’s up from the $7 million estimated for a previous version of the bill.

Senate Education members amended the bill in a way that would make it serve more students.

Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, made a successful amendment in Senate Education that removed the restriction that said students not taking part in “Advanced Career Education” programs, which start in high school, must wait until they’re at least 20 before receiving free community college.

Romano’s amendment made the eligible age 18 or younger, if a student has earned a high school diploma or its equivalent. This seems to effectively make the ACE programs optional.

The CTCS’ new fiscal note also added this “memorandum” in response to a Senate Education change that will — on top of the previously included public community colleges — allow for private, regionally accredited, two-year degree granting colleges to accept students receiving free community college funded by the state.

While CTCS Chancellor Sarah Tucker has said no private, two-year degree granting institutions are currently regionally accredited, the CTCS memorandum states that the change “creates a potential future scenario where these cost projections could increase.”

“Some private, for-profit colleges charge up to $30,000 annually for programs that could become eligible for this grant program given the current bill language,” the memorandum states. “None of the for-profit two-year colleges that currently operate in West Virginia would be immediately eligible for the WV Invests Grant; however, if they were to become regionally accredited in the future, they would be eligible.”

“There is no stated limit on the maximum amount colleges could be reimbursed,” the memorandum concludes, “and with no control over what private institutions may charge for tuition, the potential for substantial increases in cost is possible.”

On Wednesday, Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, noted the bill doesn’t specify a cap on how long someone can continue to qualify for free community college.

The bill does require students to be enrolled in at least six credit hours per semester and says “each grant may be renewed until the course of study is completed” as long as qualifications, including “a cumulative GPA [grade point average] of at least 2.0” and “adequate progress,” are met. But the time the grant would last for until it requires renewal isn’t specified, and the definition of “adequate progress” is left up to the “vice chancellor for administration and council” overseeing community colleges.

Tucker replied that a cap was discussed.

“The concern was that for part-time students or students who for whatever reason may have to start and stop and, you know, have different family, life issues, that setting a cap, a year cap, might be detrimental to those students,” Tucker said. She said specifics could regardless be set through a council rule.

Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, suggested a credit hour limit instead, which Tucker said “is a good idea” that could also be put into a council rule, but Unger replied that he wanted to see it in the bill itself.

Shortly before the committee advanced the bill, Unger said “We talk a lot about putting things in rules, let it work out in the rulemaking, let it work out in the rulemaking. As you know, Mr. Chairman, you know we set the parameters of what rules can be made or not. If things are not mentioned in the legislation, they’re outside the scope of rulemaking.”

Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, interjected, saying there’s still time for amendments to be drafted but leaving open the possibility that some things may still be addressed through rules. The bill could still be amended on the Senate floor.

“The fact is that we’re trying to find the best path forward and to move this bill along,” Blair said.

Unger didn’t reply, and the committee voted to advance the bill.

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

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