BY KATELYN CAMPBELL, COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT POLICY VISTA, THE HUB
In the midst of what West Virginia lawmakers have called a “human capital crisis,” representatives are considering a bill designed to meet the needs of the state’s changing economy.
Senate Bill 284 seeks to make a college education more affordable for West Virginians hoping to enter emerging fields in the state’s workforce. The bill has received heavy backing from Senate President Mitch Carmichael, as well as members of both sides of the aisle.
If enacted, the bill could open the doors to greater opportunities for entrepreneurship in the state, as well as generally increasing workforce participation and the average household income.
There’s been plenty of hubbub about SB 284 as it’s begun to move through committee, particularly as the conversation has shifted to center around some of the particulars of both programs, which have give advocates on either side pause. Last week’s Senate Education committee meeting was filled with rigorous discussion of whether home-schooled students would be able to benefit from the program, and concerns about whether WV Invests funds would be used as stepping stones toward entering four year colleges rather than leading participants straight into the workforce.
The Senate Education Committee took up the bill again for discussion this Tuesday and heard testimony from President of Blue Ridge Community and Technical College Peter G. Checkovich, who spoke in support of the bill but expressed concern about how its “Stay in the State” requirement would be administered.
Members of the Education Committee have voted to advance an amended version of the bill out of their committee and on to the Senate Finance committee, where it will await a place on the agenda.
At this point in the process, SB 284 is still being refined, which means there is still time to give your feedback to members of the committee. In the midst of all the hubbub around the initiative, we’ve distilled answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about the bill.
What is an ACE program? Who can participate?
According to the bill, ACE programs are designed to create pathways to post-secondary education for West Virginia high school students. These pathways are achieved through partnerships between local school systems and community and technical colleges.
Students in ACE programs will be able to take courses for college credit for little or no cost provided that the courses will bring them closer to an associates degree or professional certificate in an area of workforce need.
The Department of Commerce will provide an updated assessment of workforce needs at least once per year.
After concerns about the ability for home schooled or private school students to participate in the program, the Senate Education Committee amended the bill to more clearly demonstrate that all students are eligible to participate.
Does this mean free community college for all?
Yes and no. As described in the current version of SB 284, the West Virginia Invests Grant Program will cover the difference in cost between tuition and federal aid for students pursuing post-secondary education at community and technical colleges in fields designated as areas of workforce need.
At this point, the cost of post-secondary programs that are not deemed areas of workforce need will not be covered.
Who can participate in West Virginia Invests?
If SB 284 becomes law, a student will be eligible for West Virginia Invests funding if they:
- Are at least 18 years old (unless they are in an ACE program)
- Have lived in West Virginia for at least one year
- Have a high school diploma, GED, or GED equivalent
- Have been admitted to a West Virginia community and technical college and do not have a previous post-secondary degree
- Have filed a FAFSA form
Once a student has met the above requirements, they would be able to apply to the program to receive funding.
What’s in the fine print?
Once a student is accepted into the WV Invests Program, they must meet a number of requirements to continue to receive financial support for their education. According to the bill language, students enrolled in community college through WV Invests must:
- Maintain a GPA of at least 2.0
- Enroll in a minimum of six credit hours per semester
- Perform at least 8 hours of community service over the course of their post-secondary program
- Pass a drug test, at the student’s expense, at the beginning of each semester
Following completion of their program, WV Invests graduates will be required to reside in West Virginia for at least two years. Graduates who do not remain in West Virginia will be asked to repay the amount granted to them through the program.
When it comes to workforce development, we know there’s no silver bullet, but SB 284 could present a promising start.
What do you think? Call, tweet, email, or write your legislators let them know your thoughts on how to grow and support West Virginia’s workforce. You can find contact information for them here.
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