CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia’s Senate Minority Leader is asking questions about a bill meant to improve access to community college.

Senator Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, wonders if Senate Bill 1 might result in a financial incentive to enroll in community college at the expense of four-year institutions with similar associates degree programs.

“We’ve got a relatively fragile higher education system, and we have so many students who have the opportunity to choose from several institutions of higher education,” Prezioso said.

“As we pit one against another, we’re not necessarily enhancing students. Why would we preclude students the opportunity to go to a four-year regional institution to further their education?”

Prezioso’s questions arose during a Thursday afternoon Senate Finance Committee meeting.

On the agenda was the bill that’s been described as the top priority for the Senate’s Republican majority.

The bill wound up being approved by the committee. It now goes to the full Senate for consideration.

The community college bill passed swiftly through the Senate last year with significant bipartisan support, but it stalled out in the House of Delegates.

The bill would provide funding to pay off a career and technical college student’s tuition balance. It has sometimes been the “last dollar in” bill.

One of its goals is to encourage students to receive the vocational or technical training they may need for emerging jobs in industries such as natural gas, chemical manufacturing or healthcare.

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Sarah Armstrong Tucker

In response to Prezioso’s questions, West Virginia community college chancellor Sarah Armstrong Tucker acknowledged that several associates degree programs exist at the state’s four-year institutions. Most prominent is nursing.

Tucker also acknowledged that the existence of a grant program would provide a financial incentive for student choices.

“It would look better to a student who could go for free than it would a student who would have to pay a significant amount of tuition,” she said.

But last year when officials looked into opening up the grants to associates degree programs at regional colleges, she said, “The fiscal note for the project exploded.”

Prezioso followed up by asking, “You would have no objection if we would move the four-year institutions that have associates degrees?”

Tucker responded, “It depends on how much money you’re willing to allocate.”

As it is, the bill is estimated to cost the state $7.6 million.

“I support this bill,” Prezioso said. “I see the importance of a skilled workforce and an educated workforce. I think we need to make this bill the best we can.”

Tucker advocated for finding ways to encourage West Virginia students to develop better workplace skills.

“More than 50 percent of our high school students aren’t going anywhere. They’re going nowhere. I think this bill helps us target those students,” she said.

“I just want to make sure we’re not leaving those people out of the conversation.”

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