Charleston – A bill talked about by legislative leadership and the governor, which aims to increase access to career education and workforce development, was introduced last week in the Senate. 

The Senate Education Committee took up Senate Bill 284, one of the governor’s bills, Thursday. Two senators, Robert Karnes, R-Upshur, and Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, brought up concerns in the committee that the bill leaves out homeschoolers and private schoolers. Karnes said he felt the bill left out home school kids or private school kids because they would not participate in the ACE program and would have to wait until they are 20 years old to apply.

Committee members discussed provisions of the bill for about an hour before continuing the discussion until Tuesday. 

Initiatives to increase access to community colleges have been discussed before the legislative session began. Senate President Mitch Carmichael has been a proponent.

“The bill will provide a scholarship with the last dollar in from the state of West Virginia for everyone who wants to attend community and technical colleges — graduating high school students or those wishing to return to the workforce,” Carmichael said. “This is targeted to those who have not otherwise earned a degree. The goal is to lift the level of educational attainment for all West Virginians who want to achieve and build on their skill set to take to the workforce.”

House Speaker Tim Armstead also has mentioned increasing access. However, he said the House has a few differences in opinion. 

“I think there’s a great deal of shared interest between the House and Senate to make community college more affordable and accessible to students,” Armstead said. “It’s a matter of working through details on how to do that. 

“There are some factors we’re working on with the Senate to try to come to an agreement on,” Armstead continued. “We’re not far apart but there are differences in how to do this.” 

Armstead said the House would like to see community college made more accessible through the current PROMISE framework. Students can get PROMISE to attend community college but Armstead would like to see options expanded. He said he would also like to see proficiency of some type of task related to the field a student wants to pursue. 

“It’s not a matter of whether they can get it,” he said, referring to the PROMISE scholarship. “The current qualifications for PROMISE may not be the ones that those students are necessarily targeting as they went through high school,” he said.

Gov. Jim Justice also mentioned the initiative in his state of the state address, saying, “We need to find a way to make our community and technical colleges free.”

The Senate’s bill would create the West Virginia Invest grant and the Advanced Career Education program, or ACE. The ACE program aims to provide high school students with an opportunity to earn post-secondary credits and an associate degree by establishing partnerships with community colleges.

To qualify, a person would have to be a resident of West Virginia for a year before applying. Students also must have a high school diploma or GED, must not previously have earned a post-secondary degree, must have completed the FAFSA, and must be 20 years old with the exception of those participating in the ACE program. 

Students also must enroll in at least six credit hours per semester, pass a drug test administered by the institution, maintain a GPA of at least 2.0 and complete community service hours. Upon completion of the associate’s degree or certificate, students must live in the state for two years. 

Carmichael explained the program is based off a similar structure in Tennessee. 

“Each applicant or student who receives the scholarship will be required to submit all financial aid forms to the federal government so we capture that federal money and the state becomes the last dollar in,” Carmichael explained. “The state picks up the difference between the federal programs and what the student would otherwise be required to pay. It works out to around $800-$900 per student per semester. It’s a phenomenal program and it will cost less than $10 million a year. We were able to find that money within the current budget. It’s an affordable program that gives us incredible benefits.” 

West Virginia Council for Community and Technical College Education Chancellor Sarah Armstrong Tucker gave a budget presentation last week to the House Committee on Education. 

She explained the system comprises nine community colleges with a total enrollment of around 26,000 – with 54 percent of students part-time. The average age of a community college student is 29 years old, and 92 percent are West Virginia residents.

“Our students are nontraditional,” she said. “They don’t serve as typical high school students going into college. These are adults, people working, people who have families. They have competing priorities on their time. And there are challenges associated with that.”

She said over the course of five years, community colleges have seen around a 20 percent decrease in head count. The major reason, she said, is tuition and fees, which has gone up around 35 percent over the past five years.

“This is a sticker shock for students,” Tucker said. “That’s the reason we are seeing head count drop is because tuition and fees continue to increase. Residents aren’t able to pay the amount it’s increased. I believe we’ve hit the tipping point.”

Tucker said community colleges have lost about $10 million in state appropriations in the last six years.

She said she would love to expand the Learn and Earn program. That program has a 50/50 match between the state and the business. She said 90 percent of students in this program end up getting hired by the company in which they have an internship.

The governor’s proposed budget provides an expansion for this program. Under the governor’s budget proposal, there are two main differences compared to last year, Tucker told the committee. There is $2 million added to workforce development, including the Learn and Earn program, and $7 million for the community college subsidy.

However, community colleges have increased degree attainment rapidly over the past five years.

In another committee meeting last week, Tucker said in the last academic year, community colleges have awarded just under 5,000 certificates and associate’s degrees. This is up 250 from the previous year and represents a 26 percent increase from five years ago.

Much of the increase in certifications was in the fields of technicians, electrical engineers and health care.

Tucker said the increase is, in part, credited to three major initiatives — remediation reform, the Guided Pathways to Success program, and workforce development.

Tucker said she believes the amount appropriated under the governor’s proposed budget will be enough. 

“The initiative generally costs less than $1,000 per student depending on the state you’re talking about,” she said. “We’ve run the numbers and looked at them. We believe it will be somewhere in the $800 range per student. Based on a 20 percent increase in enrollment, $7 million should be enough to cover the amount we need.” 

Tucker said she is thrilled there is a push for this in the legislative session. 

“We have needed something like this for a long time,” she said. “We have a financial aid program for the PROMISE scholarship, which community college students can take advantage of, but primarily, it’s been four-year students who take advantage of that program. This program, the new free community college program allows for a different category of students who have desperate need to get into training programs so they can get into the workforce. This allows adult students to take advantage of scholarship money in ways they are currently not able to and it allows for students who are moving through community and technical colleges to take advantage of these programs in a way that they currently can’t or don’t. I think this has a huge opportunity for our state, for the residents of our state to get into training programs that lead to jobs and get them into the workforce.” 

 Email: alannom@register-herald.com; follow on Twitter @AndreaLannom

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