CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The House Education Committee on Wednesday began mulling over what’s been nicknamed the “fee community college bill,” SB 1.

It’s designed to provide “last dollar in” money to supplement other financial aid for adults without secondary degrees who want to pursue workforce training at a community or technical college.

House Education made some changes to the bill as it came from the Senate. Four-year institutions that grant associate degrees are made eligible to receive grant money for students signing up to take approved programs.

The Education version specifies that a grant may not exceed the average cost of tuition and fees at community and technical colleges: $4,040.

The Education version also requires the Department of Commerce to develop a hierarchy of high demand skilled professions and workforce needs with shortages.

Work on the bill had to be suspended for the afternoon House session and will pick up on Thursday with consideration of an amendment to make all four-year institutions eligible for the program for the first two years of certain bachelor’s degree programs.

SB 1 has two major parts. The first establishes Advanced Career Education – ACE – programs in which public schools and post-secondary schools form partnerships to set up education paths for students to obtain associate degrees or advanced job certifications.

The second part is the free community college or last dollar in part. It establishes the WV Invests Grants Program.

Eligible students can apply for grants to supplement their other financial aid to pursue an associate degree or certificate. The grant money goes to the school, not to the student.

Eligible applicants but be U.S. citizens or legal residents and have been a West Virginia resident for a year. They must have completed secondary education in a public, private or home school but have no post-secondary degree.

An applicant must be enrolled for at least six credit hours, participate in a community service program, and must remain in the state for two years following obtainment of the degree or certificate. A student who moves away within that window must repay all or part of the grant.

The original fiscal note with just community and technical colleges included was $7.5 million. Adding four-year schools that offer associate degrees adds a maximum $2.357 million.

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Sarah Armstrong Tucker

Community and Technical College System Chancellor Sarah Tucker said the bill addresses the big reason students don’t pursue post-secondary career education: money. “They’re scared to death it’s too expensive.”

There’s no cap on the number of people who can receive a grant, Tucker said, but the CTCS Council modeled its figures on Tennessee’s program, which saw a 20 percent enrollment increase.

While $4,040 is the maximum, she said, because it’s last dollar in, they expect the average grant to be $700.

Fairmont State University President Mirta Martin said that FSU supports what puts West Virginians to work but has concerns about the program’s effects on FSU.

The program could “cannibalize” FSU’s population, she said, and cost it as much as $69 million. To illustrate, she cited the example of a cybersecurity program. FSU offers a bachelor’s in that field, but some community colleges offer associate degrees.

Students may choose to get their associate degree elsewhere and never come to FSU. It could lose as many as 1,609 students, she said. In a sidebar conversation, she added that FSU has 180 degree offerings, but only six associate degrees.

Martin urged the committee to consider confining the bill to associate degrees that don’t lead to bachelor’s degrees in order to avoid that cannibalization.

Rebecca McPhail, president of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, told the members a recent survey showed there are 1,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs in the state.

The average manufacturing salary, she said, is $68,000, while chemical manufacturing jumps to $78,000. The shale boom could open more of those $78,000 jobs if more industry can concentrate here.

A $700 grant to help someone get a $78,000 job, she said, is a great return on investment, considering just the payroll tax that will come back.

Because of the concern raised by Martin, Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, offered the amendment to allow grants for the first two years of any four-year college degree courses that meet the WV Invests program requirements.

Committee staff was unsure how much more this might cost and hoped to find out for the next meeting.

WVU’s Rob Alsop, vice president for strategic initiatives, was not at the meeting but was at the Capitol and is following the progress of the bill. He said that WVU doesn’t necessarily share Martin’s concern.

“We’re supportive of the Senate bill,” he said. “We think we need to get more kids into our two-years and more into our four-years. So we think it’ll be on us to, if a student gets two years of college at a community college, to talk about transferring and coming up to WVU to get the four-year degree

“While we understand that concern,” he said, “we this as a critical workforce issue for West Virginia.”

WVU Potomac State College does offer some associate degrees that may fall within the parameters of the House Education version, he said, and there are fiscal concerns WVU is aware of. But overall, “We think additional investment in higher education at the community college level is great.”

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