CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A bill that would provide funding to pay off a career and technical college student’s tuition balance has been getting significant attention in the Legislature.

The presidents of West Virginia’s four-year institutions are watching it with interest, hopeful that it might improve the landscape of the state’s higher education system and also wondering what effect it may have on student enrollment decisions.

“I’d like to see it tweaked so that you could have an opportunity to go the first two years either at a community college or a four-year institution, either one. That would be my first preference,” said Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert, speaking in the Upper Rotunda.

“Having said that, any time we create more opportunities for students to go to a two-year or four-year school it’s a good thing.”

Gilbert said he thinks the bill in its current form would divert some students away from four-year institutions. He said it’s up to those schools to develop relationships with community colleges to encourage students to continue.

Marshall already has some such agreements — known as articulation agreements — and hopes to continue strengthening its relationships with community colleges. “We see them as partners to the four-year institutions, and we want to strengthen that partnership,” Gilbert said.

The community college bill, which has been called the “last dollar ‘in” bill — or sometimes just “free community college” — passed on Tuesday through the Senate Education Committee. It now goes to Senate Finance.

Gov. Jim Justice’s proposed budget estimates the cost of the grant program at $7 million. It is designed to provide funding for tuition and fees after all other forms of financial aid are exhausted,

Some changes made in committee would expand the number of students eligible. That would also likely drive up the cost, although no one seemed ready to calculate how much.

Tuesday was also Higher Education Day at the Capitol, so there were lots of college and university leaders around to discuss the bill.

The most prominent among them, West Virginia University President Gordon Gee, said he favors the bill.

“We need to think about higher education as pre-K through life,” Gee said in a hallway near the state Senate. “Our community colleges are so incredibly important, particularly right now as we pick up our economy.

“So I am a great fan of that. I have always been a great fan of community colleges.”

Many of the students who start at community college would wind up pursuing four-year degrees at institutions like WVU, Gee predicted.

“I hope so. I hope so,” Gee said. “But I think what the community and technical colleges do in terms of training is very important.”

The chancellor of West Virginia’s community and technical education system, Sarah Armstrong Tucker, believes the possible funding can encourage students to enter community college without diverting those who are likely to aim for four-year degrees.

She said the program is aimed at attracting adult students who otherwise would not be going to college. And it is meant to attract K-12 students in technical programs who otherwise wouldn’t see a pathway to college.

“It is our hope — and research shows — that once students go and get some success in an associate’s degree program that they are more likely to transfer into a four-year institution and to do better in that institution,” said Armstrong Tucker, who was walking out of a gathering of higher education leaders with Gov. Jim Justice.

The program may be a means to an end for students who need to get an associate’s degree or one-year certification before re-entering the workforce.

“It’s also a way for other students to get their feet wet and then be successful later in a four-year institution,” said Armstrong Tucker.

West Virginia State University has been pursuing stronger relationships with community colleges. Still, university President Anthony Jenkins said he has concerns about the community college bill.

He referenced the “Straight to State” program that includes agreements with New River and Bridge Valley community colleges.

“If those students take advantage of this opportunity, get into the workforce and continue to work toward their four-year degree, they can do that at State,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins said that as the legislation makes its way through, it’s important to see whether it focuses on technical tracks or tracks for students to go on to a four-year degree. “That’s where I want to see the detail,” Jenkins said.

“On its face, I think it’s a good opportunity. However, I think what’s also necessary is there has to be a very vigorous campaign that moves people and the citizens of West Virginia to not only buy into this but into the higher education pathway period.”

Concord University’s president, Kendra Boggess, is still assessing what effect the bill might have.

“We don’t object to it,” Boggess said. “And there certainly is a need for community and technical colleges. I guess if I had my druthers, I would say if we’re going to do free first two years it would be nice if all the four-year schools and the two-year schools could be supported.

“That might not be possible at this point, but looking ahead it might be good.”

Boggess wondered how many students who are encouraged by the financial incentive to attend community college will then opt to transfer.

The bill initially included a requirement that students be at least 20 years old or enrolled in a enrolled in a high school advanced career education program, although those requirements were amended out in Senate Finance.

“Don’t really know what the impact of that is in counties where they’re not used to going to school. If they don’t go when they’re 18 it could very well be that they don’t go, and that leaves them in a worse place,” Boggess said. “So that concerns me. But otherwise we don’t have concerns with it.”

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