Work on community and technical college bill begins

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Senate saw the defeat of their landmark education reform bill, but there is still hope for the Senate’s effort to make community and technical college more affordable.

The House Education Committee started work on Senate Bill 1, creating a last-dollar-in program for two-year community and technical college education.

The bill would establish the Advanced Career Education (ACE) program and the WV Invests Grant Program to help high school students, graduates, and adult learners get the skills needed to enter West Virginia’s workforce.

The ACE program would team up county high schools and community and technical colleges to create pathways for high school students to receive a two-year degree of a certification. Through the WV Invests grant program, the state would fund community and technical college education for high school students and adults once grants and other forms of financial aid are exhausted.

The state Department of Commerce would determine which specific fields require jobs, which would determine the community and technical college degree and certificate programs the state would fund. Participants in the last-dollar-in program would need to submit to periodic drug tests and perform acts of community service. They would also need to remain in the state for two years or be forced to pay back the full cost of the grant. The bill passed unanimously out of the Senate Jan. 23.

The House Education Committee made some changes to SB 1, including allowing colleges and universities with two-year programs to participate in the program. According to a fiscal note for the Higher Education Policy Commission, SB 1 would cost $7.5 million assuming that all two-year degrees would be eligible, though once the Commerce Department determines the workforce needs, it’s expected that price tag to decrease substantially. Adding in four-year schools with two-year programs would cost an additional $2.4 million.

The West Virginia Community and Technical College System has expressed support for the bill. According to Chancellor Sarah Tucker, two-year schools have seen a drop in student enrollment over the last few years.

“The nice thing about this program and what it’s trying to do is say…great, you’ve got this certification. Now let’s see if we can add on to it and get you an associate degree or another one-year certificate without you having to pay a significant cost,” Tucker said.

Even with the addition of four-year schools that offer associate degree programs in this bill, the colleges and universities are not happy with it. Mira Martin, president of Fairmont State University, warned lawmakers that four-year schools could take a nearly $70 million hit if this bill becomes law.

“As we’ve heard, a family’s first concern is how to get our students an education because they don’t have the funding, a reasonable individual would tell their child go to a community college, get the first two years free of charge…and then after that student gets that associate degree, then they would be able to transfer to a four-year institution,” Martin said.

Martin called SB 1 a “cannibalization” of higher education, but Del. Steve Westfall, R-Jackson, pushed back against that assertion, pointing out that SB 1 is based on a similar bill in Tennessee.

“You said cannibalization,” asked Westfall. “Tennessee has had this program I think for three years now. Do you know of any colleges in Tennessee closing?

“No sir, but if I might, the Tennessee Promise program, the funding does follow the student and it’s not just open to the community and technical schools, but to public schools and private schools,” Martin said. “In that bill, that student could go to that four-year institution for those first two years free and continue on.”

House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, has expressed support in the past for programs to help create a trained, drug-free workforce, though he has been reluctant to express a specific opinion on SB 1, which has been one of the signature bills of Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson. A similar bill passed with wide support from the Senate only the be shelved by the House under former House Speaker Tim Armstead.

Business and industry groups support the bill, including the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the West Virginia Manufacturer’s Association.

“We still have a lot of jobs that are going unfilled,” said Rebecca McPhail, president of the manufacturer’s association. “We still have the lowest workforce participation rate in the country, which is a frightening prospect for manufacturers who are here and want to consider expansion…We are hopeful there is something that can happen to change that.”

The committee will continue discussion of SB 1 today.

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