Across the country, there is a growing call to make community college free.
The argument is a simple one that grows out of modern economics: We provide free K-12 education because a high school diploma once was essential for success in the economy; anything else was optional. That’s no longer the case. More and more, the economy is creating jobs that require at least some post-secondary education — not necessarily a four-year degree, but at least some kind of credentials program through a community college.
Accordingly, the argument goes, if the purpose of education is to prepare students for success in the workplace, then society needs to provide a free education to community college, as well.
The proposals to do this tend to come from the political left. Both candidates for the Democratic nomination for governor, for instance, have competing proposals. On the other hand, Tennessee has actually implemented such a program — and Tennessee is run by Republicans.
Now, here’s the curious thing: There are six community colleges in Virginia that have already figured out how to offer free tuition — kind of, sort of. There are a lot of asterisks there. The best way to describe it to say they’re doing this “for qualifying students.” The details could take pages to describe. The big picture point, though, is that six schools have created scholarship programs intended to bridge the gap between what various federal grants might provide for low-income students — and what the remaining cost is. “Last dollar” scholarships, they’re called.
This is a little more complicated — or maybe a lot more complicated — than simply declaring tuition is free for everybody, but again, let’s focus on the big picture: Six community colleges have already started down that road.
Here’s an even more remarkable thing: All six of these community colleges are in — or at least serve — rural areas. Five of them are west of the Blue Ridge, covering localities that are officially defined as part of Appalachia.
None of these were directed by Washington or even Richmond. All these scholarship programs bubbled up organically from below, usually driven by the business community, often with bipartisan support from local government.
In other words, here are six — six! — examples of communities taking matters into their hands and actually implementing things that politicians at higher levels are still arguing over.
This seems a huge success story, one that hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it deserves. So what are these six schools? West of the Blue Ridge, it’s Dabney S. Lancaster, Mountain Empire, New River, Virginia Western and Wytheville. And then there’s Eastern Shore.
The details vary from school to school, but the bottom line is the same: Those community colleges are able to go into high schools and tell kids if they want a free education, they can get one.
Angie Covey, the executive director of the education foundation at New River Community College, says that has a powerful effect. Students who previously thought college was out of reach now realize it’s not. In some cases, once the community college starts working with them to fill out financial aid forms, the students find they qualify for full tuition through existing federal aid — so the community college’s scholarship fund winds up not paying anything, after all. But if the program hadn’t existed, the student might never have pursued community college at all.
In any case, this scholarship program has covered 2,461 students at Wytheville since that program began in 2007. At Virginia Western, it’s covered 1,912 since 2008. At Mountain Empire in Big Stone Gap, it’s covered more than 1,400 students since 2002. At Eastern Shore, it’s covered 500 since 1997. New River covered 73 students from Giles County in its first two years and now is expanding to cover all but one other locality in its service area. Dabney Lancaster is in its first year with 53 students.
Each of these programs has a slightly different origin story, often varying from one county to another. In Giles County, the main champion was the county administrator. Chris McKlarney is an engineer by profession and he saw the county’s low education level as a problem to be fixed. The county kicked in $75,000, but businesses contributed $350,000. In Blacksburg, the champion was police chief Anthony Wilson, who saw it as a way to offer hope to at-risk students. In Floyd County, the champion was economic development director Lydeana Martin, for all the obvious reasons.
In some ways, though, the story is always the same: The locality saw the need to raise the skill level of its workforce it hopes to attract jobs, and so it took matters into its own hands.
Some communities have lucked out with funding sources. Eastern Shore, Mountain Empire and Wytheville have well-endowed private foundations that cover some or all of the expenses. At Virginia Western, New River and Dabney Lancaster, most of the scholarships are covered through a mix of funding from local governments and private fund-raising.
Some exceptions: Pulaski County hasn’t contributed, so its students are the only ones in the New River not covered. And a warning: The state’s tobacco commission covers the scholarships for Franklin County and Floyd County (and some at Mountain Empire). The commission, though, is changing its priorities, so that funding will expire after the coming year, meaning students there are out of luck, unless those localities start writing checks.
That raises a philosophical question: Are local governments essentially being forced to take on a job that the state or federal government is shirking? Perhaps, if you want to look at it that way. On the other hand, the localities are mostly interested in getting results, and that’s what it takes. Some require community service in return — from four hours at Virginia Western to an astonishing 80 hours at New River. Giles puts its students to work cleaning up the New River so it’s an attractive tourist draw. Radford plans to use its students to clean up schools in the summer to get them ready for fall.
The message there: “Your community is going to make sure you have access to education, and in return you give back to your community,” Covey says. “And it’s working.”
Yes, yes it is.