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Northam takes another stab at free community college proposal

Northam takes another stab at free community college proposal

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Gov. Ralph Northam spoke at a COVID-19 vaccination event at Richmond Raceway last week. Northam wants free community college for those studying high-demand fields.

A signature campaign proposal from Gov. Ralph Northam to make community college free for students pursuing degrees in high-demand fields is moving ahead in the legislature.

The measure would cover tuition, fees and textbooks for low- and middle-income Virginians willing to fill jobs in fields with the most dire shortages.

Renewed interest in the program comes amid a critical shortage in health care workers statewide and a skyrocketing unemployment rate in the industries hardest hit by the pandemic. The list of high-demand fields now includes jobs in nursing, manufacturing and technology, but will evolve with the state’s needs.

“Tuition-free community college has been a top priority of Governor Northam’s since his campaign — and it is a critical part of rebuilding Virginia’s economy in a post-pandemic world,” said Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky.

Northam’s proposal successfully cleared the General Assembly during its regular session last winter; but, funding for the program became a casualty of the COVID-19 budget cuts that followed in the spring.

On Monday, legislation to enact the program sponsored by House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, cleared the chamber’s education panel. Accompanying legislation sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, advanced that chamber’s education panel. The legislation will now face the legislature’s money committees.

“While he was disappointed to have to pause this program last year due to COVID-19, Gov. Northam is committed to getting it across the finish line this year,” Yarmosky said. “He was thrilled to see it advance out of committee, and looks forward to expanding access to education for thousands more Virginia students.”

Titled “Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back,” or “G3,” the program would cover education fees for an estimated 40,000 students.

The Northam administration estimates that the program would cover people in households with incomes below 400% of the federal poverty level, or $100,000 for a family of four. (Like the federal government, the state would take into account how much a family can contribute toward education costs and any federal financial aid they qualify for.)

The plan includes extra support for the most needy students, who may need more than tuition and fees to complete their programs. Students who qualify for the highest amount of federal student aid, and enroll in school full time, would also receive $900 per semester to help with the cost of food, child care and housing.

To remain eligible, students would have to remain in good academic standing and demonstrate progress toward completing their degree in three years.

The Northam administration had originally proposed a community service requirement for students under the “give back” moniker. House lawmakers opposed that requirement, arguing that it could overburden students balancing two jobs, a family and other demands.

The administration redefined “give back” to mean broadly contributing to the economy by filling a job in a high-demand field.

The legislation has the support of Amazon, the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, the Virginia Manufacturers Association, and others.

Virginia has 23 schools in its community college system and roughly 250,000 students. More than half of all undergraduate students in Virginia are enrolled in a community college.

Community colleges face low graduation rates, with fewer than 1 in 5 students completing a degree within three years, according to data from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

Four of the five states that surround Virginia have some form of free community college for high school graduates, an idea that has been gaining traction across the country since President Barack Obama pitched it in 2015.

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