Could the ‘Free’ Community and Technical College Bill Reappear in 2019?

Dec 10, 2018

A bill West Virginia Public Broadcasting followed closely during the 2018 regular state Legislative session could resurface in 2019 – legislation that would offer tuition assistance to in-state students attending a Community and Technical College. Last year, it was often referred to as the "free community and technical college bill," and it would’ve provided the “last dollar in” after all other forms of financial aid had been exhausted.

When lawmakers agreed to a 5 percent salary increase for public employees, this was one of many bills that did not make it through the session. But Legislative leaders said if state revenues were up by the time the 2019 session came around, the bill would likely be resurrected.

Well, according to the governor’s revenue staff, state dollars are up.

Officials and students within the CTC system are hopeful for the bill’s return.

BridgeValley Community and Technical College student, Stephanie Fizer.
Credit Daniel Walker / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

28-year-old Stephanie Fizer is a student at the Montgomery campus of BridgeValley Community and Technical College. She’s halfway through a two-year business program offered there.

Fizer lives in Fayette County. She’s married to a coal miner and has a four-year-old son. Prior to attending BridgeValley, she got her GED, and worked as a pharmaceutical technician for five years.

It wasn’t until recently she ever thought she could get a college education.

“My husband works in the coals mines, so that automatically kind of knocks us out of any federal assistance,” she said. “They’re considered to make too much money.”

But Fizer says thanks to a work study at BridgeValley and filling out the required Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, she was able to work, secure some state funds, and go back to school.

Gov. Jim Justice giving his 2018 State of the State address.
Credit Perry Bennett / WV Legislative Photography

Gov. Jim Justice, Senate President Mitch Carmichael and Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair were among those who pushed for free community and technical college last year.

The bill had bipartisan support, and the aim was to boost the state’s educated workforce while also, in the long term, boost the state’s economy.

“I’ve dreamed about this since I was a farmer riding a tracker, 21-years-old in Berkeley County growing apples and peaches,” said Sen. Blair in his floor speech the day the bill passed out of the state Senate in 2018. “Because when I was in school in 1976 and ‘77, they really wanted to push you to college education; 'gotta go to a 4-year.' It didn’t fit for me, and it doesn’t fit for a lot of us.”

Sen. Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, giving a floor speech in 2018.
Credit Will Price / WV Legislative Photography

The bill considered in the 2018 session would have created a grant program of $8 million for tuition and fees at a CTC for students to use after all other forms of financial aid had been granted.

A prospective student, like Fizer, would need to fill out the FAFSA, be at least 18-years-old with a high school diploma or equivalent, pass a drug screening, and agree to remain in the state as a taxpayer for at least two years after graduation and fulfill some community service.

Senate Bill 284 unanimously passed out of the West Virginia Senate two-and-a-half weeks into last year’s session but later died in the House.

Many are hopeful to see it revived in the 2019 session, including Fizer. She says if state lawmakers do resurrect the bill, she and her husband, who’s a coal miner, would likely pursue more education through the program.

“That would be an amazing gift,” Fizer said. “What took me so long to go to college was the financial aspect of it. I mean, tuition is one thing, but then you still have books, you still have web fees, you have other expenses that come into that, and not everybody can do that, you know. Most people I know from the college, they have a job, because they have to.”

Sarah Tucker, Chancellor of the West Virginia Community and Technical College System.
Credit Daniel Walker / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Community College Administrators believe tuition waivers are critical in addressing the significant number of vacant, but high-skilled jobs throughout the state.

“We have thousands of jobs that need to be filled in this state that aren’t being filled, because we don’t have people with the credentialing that they need in order to fill them,” said Sarah Tucker, Chancellor of the Community and Technical College System of West Virginia. “We know that we need to dramatically increase the percentage of folks who have some sort of post-secondary training. So right now, West Virginia lags behind the national average. We have about 31 percent of adults who have an associate degree or higher; that’s simply not going to meet the economic workforce need of this state.”

Tucker says those thousands of unfilled jobs fall into four categories – manufacturing, healthcare, technology, and the energy sector. She says all are potentially high-paying but need post-secondary education to get there -- and a bill to provide tuition assistance to CTCs could go a long way.

“The number one reason that people in West Virginia don’t go to college is because they’re scared of the cost, and so simply a bill that would tell people that you can go to college, that you have access to college, that we will help you pay for college, because we believe in you, and we want you be successful, would go a long way in changing the mindset of people in West Virginia.”

Because of the high cost, many students end up turning away from higher education. Renee Herdman is the senior financial aid counselor at BridgeValley’s main campus in South Charleston. She says she’s seen this first-hand in her career.

“We have some students who are grant recipients. We have some though that only qualify for student loans, and some of those students choose not to attend college, because they don’t want to take out student loan debt,” Herdman said. “So, a bill like this would allow more students the opportunity to attend college at a CTC level and hopefully not have to accrue very much debt, to very little, to none at all.”

Herdman says most of the students she’s counseled at BridgeValley are attending with the help of financial aid.

Renee Herdman, Senior Financial Aid Counselor at BridgeValley CTC (right) speaks with a student about financial aid opportunities.
Credit Daniel Walker / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

In addition to cost, there’s also a stigma that surrounds community and technical colleges. Some think CTCs aren’t as good as 4-year institutions.

But Chancellor Tucker says that’s not true - that CTCs provide different opportunities for students. She also points out CTCs and the state’s 4-year colleges have been forming partnerships to support each other, such as credit-transfer or special training opportunities. CTCs are a good first-step for a student who may not know what they want to do in a career, she says.

“We need to do a better job at communicating to parents and to educators frankly, too, what a community college education means, and what that can look like for their futures,” Tucker said. “You can go to a community college and end up making $90,000 or $100,000 a year with just a two-year degree, and I don’t think that a lot of people understand that.”

West Virginia is home to nine community and technical colleges that according to Tucker all work locally to strengthen the job opportunities in their respective areas, such as an IT-focused program at Mountwest CTC in Huntington or training for Procter & Gamble employees at Blue Ridge CTC in Martinsburg.

**Editor's Note: This story originally stated Stephanie Fizer was a pharmaceutical technition for ten years, but that was incorrect. She was a pharmaceutical tech for five years.

**Editor's Note: The story was edited on Jan. 21, 2019 to include the episode of "The Legislature Today" in which this story is featured.