Could West Virginia offer free community college?

By Amanda Hayes

Senior Staff Writer

CHARLESTON — Free community and technical college tuition for West Virginia residents is being considered — although no bills have been introduced in the first three days of the West Virginia Legislative session.

State Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, announced in December he was working on a proposal for people to earn a two-year associates degree free of charge and possibly allow high school students to complete some sort of certificate while still in school.

At a West Virginia Press Association Legislative Lookahead held Friday, Jan. 5, Del. Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, announced his similar plan which would expand on Carmichael’s concept.

“I think we need look at that concept very carefully,” Rowe said. “It’s my opinion we need to include the traditional graduating seniors but we also need to include adult learners. Another aspect of it is I think we need to include not just community and technical college education but also career centers.  Particularly for adults who have been out of school system for a while and they want to get some sort of technical, I think we should include them.”

The affordability of this plan is more encouraging based on numbers from Tennessee and Oregon who have implemented similar proposals with about a 20 percent increase in their enrollments, according to Rowe who is a member of both the House Education and Finance committees.

Using those numbers, Rowe said that would cost about $2 million to give those scholarships — and he emphasized it would be after the students have received other scholarship money.

“That’s clearly affordable,” he said. “To include adult learners, we would be adding another $5 million.”

Copying the name from other states, Rowe also proposes using the name Hope Scholarship.

“It’s possible for us to give some sort of hope that they can get the kinds of education that they themselves can use in order to better their lives,” he said. “That I think is visionary; I think it’s necessary and I think it’s very important. I hope we can be talking about that as part of what we do.”

To qualify for the Promise Scholarship, students need a 3.0 grade point average, a 22 on the ACT or 1100 on the SAT.

Rowe proposed a minimum 2.5 gpa and 16 score on the ACT for his Hope Scholarship. West Virginia is moving away from the ACT and implementing the SAT as the standardized test for high school juniors.

As of Friday, Rowe had not yet introduced his Hope Scholarship bill.

However, he is the lead sponsor of House Bill 2858 which would create a loan tuition forgiveness program to encourage students in selected and necessary fields to remain the state. HB 2858 proposes three loan forgiveness programs.

A New College Families Program is for West Virginia residents who are the first member of their family to graduate from a two or four-year college and who work full time in the state for at least three consecutive years immediately following graduation.

A Return to Home Program is for students who graduate from high schools with historically low college attendance rates and return to work full time in their county for at least three consecutive years immediately following graduation. The STEM program would be for students who graduate with a degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics and work full time in the state for at least three consecutive years immediately following graduation.

The bill has been referred to the House Education Committee.

Del.  Roy Cooper, R-Summers, is lead sponsor of House Bill 2756 which would make Promise Scholarships available for students pursuing certificates or degrees through an accredited community and technical college.

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