For years, the act of paying for college has had families across the country wringing their hands with anxiety and worry. In West Virginia, where only 33 percent of adults aged 25 to 64 have a post-secondary degree or certificate, many students don’t even consider attending one of the state’s community and technical colleges due in part to the perceived cost of attendance.
Luckily, there is a solution on the horizon for West Virginians authored by Senate President Mitch Carmichael and Senator Roman Prezioso at the request of Gov. Jim Justice.
If signed into law, Senate Bill 284 will afford every adult resident who has not previously been awarded a post-secondary degree and is drug-free the opportunity to attend two years of community college tuition free, so long as the students stay and work in the state for two years. The bill, developed in partnership with the Higher Education Policy Commission and the West Virginia Department of Education, also provide the same opportunities to law abiding, academically qualified high school graduates.
Senate Bill 284 will make it possible for students and families in West Virginia to finally remove the biggest financial impediment to realizing their dreams and goals of attaining a community or technical college degree, advance their education, and support their family. It will also allow the state to take a major step forward in improving the skills of its workforce thereby improving the state’s economy.
Free community college tuition programs already exist, and they are working.
In the first year since launching a similar program in Tennessee, the Tennessee Promise, enrollment increased by 24.7 percent in their community colleges and by 20 percent in their colleges of applied technology. Overall, there was a 10.1 percent increase in the number of students in the state’s institutions of higher education and the statewide rate of college enrollment by high school graduates increased by 4.6 percentage points, from 57.9 to 62.5 percent. These are exactly the gains that can occur in West Virginia, and will move the state out of last place in the country in both its labor participation rate and its level of overall educational attainment.
Getting some form of higher education, be it a two-year community college degree, a certificate attesting to much needed career skills, or a bachelor’s degree, has become the key to earning a decent living in today’s economy. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows Americans with college degrees accounted for all the net new jobs created over the last decade. In stark contrast, the number of Americans with high school diplomas or less who were employed has fallen by nearly three million since the Great Recession.
The idea is well worth the state’s investment and the federal government will help pay for it. Because recipients of the proposed West Virginia Invests Grant would first have to complete an application for a federal Pell Grant to pay for their tuition, West Virginia would receive a new influx of federal dollars, just as Tennessee has, to offset the cost of educating each new student.
Free tuition programs alone will not meet the needs of low-income students who will still need to balance school and other obligations. But the results from communities and states that have eliminated tuition show low-income students, especially those who wouldn’t otherwise include college in their plans, are the ones who benefit most from the creation of a college-going culture.
More parents and students deserve to experience the joy when college tuition is taken off the table, knowing they have a bright future ahead of them, full of possibility. West Virginians can make this happen for thousands of families, and improve the state’s economy at the same time, by seeing that the House of Delegates follows the Senate in passing Senate Bill 284.