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Northam seeks $145M to back free community college for qualifying students in high-demand fields
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Northam seeks $145M to back free community college for qualifying students in high-demand fields

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Gov. Ralph Northam will pursue $145 million over the next two years to offer free community college to low- and middle-income students pursuing careers in high-demand fields.

The program, which Northam first teased over the summer, would cover tuition, fees and textbooks. Titled “Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back,” or G3, the program would require recipients to complete job training or community service while receiving the aid.

“This is an investment in equity and our economy — by helping Virginians get the skills they need, we’re building a world-class workforce while ensuring all Virginians can support themselves, their families, and their communities,” Northam said in a statement.

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 will take into account not just total income, but also how much a family can contribute toward education costs.)

Students must qualify for in-state tuition to participate in the program. That excludes out-of-state residents and undocumented immigrants.

Northam unveiled the plan in Northern Virginia on Thursday.

The funding request is part of Northam’s two-year budget proposal, which so far includes key requests related to maternal health, early education and environmental quality.

The governor plans to unveil his signature budget in full on Tuesday in a meeting with the legislature’s money committees. It will be the only spending plan Northam will propose and implement before the end of his term in January 2022.

The Northam administration estimates that roughly 40,000 people would participate in the program, which would support students pursuing careers in health care, technology, early education, public safety and such skilled trades as construction and manufacturing.

Virginia has 23 schools in its community college system and roughly 240,000 students. More than half of all undergraduate students in Virginia, 57%, 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.

The Northam administration framed the plan as crucial for Virginia businesses struggling for skilled workers. The plan was informed by a statewide workforce-development listening tour with businesses that wrapped up in August, the administration said.

“The G3 program will help Virginia businesses of all sizes fill open jobs, connect Virginians with the necessary training and credentials to find good-paying work, and grow the commonwealth’s economy,” said Megan Healy, the governor’s chief workforce development advisor, in a statement.

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 $1,000 per semester to help with the cost of food, child care and housing.

The plan also doles out incentives to community colleges serving these students. For every low-income student who completes the first 30 credits of any high-demand program, institutions will receive $500. The state would grant them an additional $400 for a completed two-year degree.

To keep receiving the aid, students must show they are on a timeline to graduate within three years. They must also complete two hours of work experience, community service or other public service for every credit hour they enroll in.

The funding would flow through a retooled community college system for high-demand fields that prioritizes workforce skills in the first year, instead of basic academic classes.

James Toscano, president of the Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, which lobbied for the tuition freeze passed in this year’s regular session, backed the preliminary proposal.

“The governor’s proposal provides a very positive link between higher education funding and certain employers’ needs. Perhaps more importantly, it opens up a much bigger conversation about how the state funds its public colleges and who benefits most,” he said in a statement.

“The $145 million budget initiative represents just a fraction of the billions in total state spending on higher education that favors a few resource-rich universities — with no affordability or employment outcomes required.

“With Virginians carrying billions in student debt, the time to address yesterday’s funding model is now.”

mleonor@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6254

Twitter: @MelLeonor_

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