CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The state Senate’s top priority, a proposal for greater financial access to community colleges, is facing pushback from West Virginia’s four-year colleges.

Fairmont State President Mirta Martin was in the audience for a committee meeting to roll out the community college bill. Afterward, Martin engaged in a hallway conversation with Senate Education Chairwoman Patricia Rucker.

Martin was back at the Capitol the very next day, ready to discuss her concerns about the bill.

“For the regional institutions, very candidly, it will put us out of business,” Martin said in a MetroNews interview.

Martin’s worry is that Senate Bill 1 will provide a financial incentive for students to aim for community college when similar program tracks exist at regional colleges.

“The intent of the bill is to put people to work, not to cannibalize existing programs and existing institutions,” she said. “It’s to attract more people, not to take a specific group of people and direct them to one area or to one college as opposed to the other.”

The full Senate is likely to start considering the community college bill Monday on first reading. It will take three readings to pass the body. Second reading, amendment stage, is likely to see proposed changes.

There’s little doubt the bill will pass the Senate, but what happens in the House is a bigger question. The same bill got nowhere in the House last year, and this year’s talk of the bill hasn’t been as enthusiastic among delegates.

The bill would provide funding to pay off a career and technical college student’s tuition balance. It has sometimes been called 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.

Martin is not against the bill’s goal of encouraging technical education.

“The purpose of the bill is to create an incentive for people to go back to school to receive a certificate for a trade. In other words, we need more welders, we need more plumbers, we need more electricians.

“So the intent of the bill is to entice these individuals who perhaps do not want to go to college but who deserve a meaningful career from which to feed their families and go back to school.”

But she worries about the bill’s wording. She notes that some of the regional colleges still provide associates degrees but wouldn’t be covered by the bill. That could provide a financial incentive to steer students away from the regional colleges and toward neighboring community colleges.

Her concern is that many students who might have enrolled for four years at a regional college may instead opt for two years at community college. At best, she fears, those students might transfer to finish a four-year degree.

“So if this bill were to pass, the regional institutions would then become a finishing university. That would only afford the regional institutions two years worth of tuition.”

Martin proposes changing the bill in a couple of possible ways.

One possibility is narrowing the definition of the fields subject to the grant money. Martin envisions including only trades taught by community colleges. “In the definitions section of the bill you define trade as ‘workforce careers such as welding and electricians and plumbers.'”

Or, she suggested, the approved institutions should be broadened. “You delete community and technical schools and you replace it with ‘all public institutions in West Virginia.'”

That debate played out last week as the community college bill was considered by the Senate Finance Committee.

Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, raised questions about how the bill would affect regional colleges. The district he represents includes both Fairmont State and Pierpont Community and Technical College.

“We can’t pick winners and losers,” Prezioso said, echoing a term often used by his Republican colleagues. “And that’s what we’re doing right now. We’re making colleges pick winners and losers.”

Prezioso is likely to lead the charge during the amendment stage for the bill on the Senate floor.

“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.”

In Senate Finance, he wound up in a back-and-forth with Sarah Armstrong Tucker, chancellor of West Virginia’s community and technical college system.

“You would have no objection if we would move the four-year institutions that have associates degrees?” Prezioso asked.

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Sarah Armstrong Tucker

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.

Tucker said broadening the bill was discussed last year, but the idea was dropped because of cost considerations.

She also cited studies of a similar grant program in Tennessee.

An annual report in that state showed enrollment at community colleges has blossomed — growing by almost 28 percent the first year of implementation and almost 20 percent after that.

Meanwhile, enrollment at locally-governed institutions fell by 5.6 percent from 2014 to 2015. But from 2014 to 2016, enrollment for those colleges grew by 1.6 percent.

Tucker’s conclusion was that financial incentives encouraged students who might not otherwise have opted for college to enter the community college system.

Many were encouraged to continue toward four-year degrees, she said, sustaining enrollment at the regional colleges, too.

“More than 50 percent of our high school students aren’t going anywhere,” Tucker said. “They’re going nowhere. I think this bill helps us target those students. I just want to make sure we’re not leaving those people out of the conversation.”

One of the advocates for the community college bill has been Senate Education Chairwoman Rucker, who was on the other side of one of Martin’s passionate hallway conversations.

“I am really excited. I think this is really a game-changer,” said Rucker, R-Jefferson. “And getting more of our citizens to have those work skills and get into the marketplace and get good income jobs, that really is going to make a huge difference in West Virginia in just a few short years.”

And Rucker contends an easier pathway to community college could result in more college enrollment overall. She too cited the experience in Tennessee.

“In the first, initial year there was a little bit of a reduction to the four-year institutions. But guess what — in the  subsequent years afterwards there was actually an increase,” she said.

“And we believe it was because a large amount of those students who took advantage of this program to get their associates degree then wanted to continue to go on after that. So it actually fed more into the four-year institutions.”

Rucker shared the concern that expanding the program to include regional colleges would be financially unfeasible.

“Yes, it really inflated the fiscal note on this legislation to the point that it would almost be impossible for us to afford it. So it really, truly is a question of do we want to at least get started and get it going, or do we want to forget the idea?”

In the House of Delegates, conversations seem less certain about the bill. Speaker Roger Hanshaw, when asked prior to the session about Senate Bill 1, more generally expressed desire to improve workforce development in West Virginia.

The new House Education Committee chairman, Danny Hamrick, R-Harrison, also talked more broadly about workforce development, saying he hadn’t yet studied many of the bill’s details. Hamrick attended Fairmont State.

“The bill coming from the Senate, I have some of the same questions others have asked — to make sure the focus of the bill isn’t just to get associates degrees,” Hamrick said.

He advocated for portions of the bill covering certificate-based programs that have relatively short training periods but significant wage possibilities.

“As long as it’s focused on filling that middle skills gap that we have and getting people more interested in those jobs that we have in West Virginia and increasing participation in the workforce, I think it’s absolutely a great idea.”

Hamrick also described the results in Tennessee as a success that could be replicated in West Virginia.

“All the facts that I’ve seen look at the program look like a success there,” Hamrick said. “As long as we’re careful and review all the details of the bill, it could be very vital in helping us close that middle skills gap.”

So the debate picks up this week on Senate Bill 1.

Fairmont State’s Martin hopes the conversation steers toward changing the bill to include regional colleges or to narrow the focus to programs offered exclusively at community colleges.

“We don’t offer certificates in welding or in roofing or in plumbing. That’s what the community colleges offer uniquely, and that’s the original intent of the bill — to get people towards those careers. Well then that needs to be said, that needs to be specified, that needs to be articulated,” she said.

“Because if it’s not, the unintended consequence will be disastrous for higher education in West Virginia.”

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