On Free College, West Virginia is a Case Study of What to Do and Not Do

West Virginia looks like it might become the latest state to offer a version of tuition-free community college—joining Tennessee, Oregon, New York (which has extended free college to public 4-year schools as well), and a host of localities across the country. In a state with a Republican governor and Senate, the proposal (known as WV Invests) is the most recent sign that some version of guaranteed college affordability is not going away anytime soon. And like most versions of free community college, there are a few upsides and a few notable—and correctable—drawbacks.

First, to the good: It looks like lawmakers in West Virginia plan to include in their proposal adult workers looking to retrain. Generally, free college proposals have focused on traditional college-age students, and in a state that has seen massive upheaval in the labor market (more on that below), it’s good to see policymakers thinking about how to make higher education an option for far more than just recent high school graduates. Clearly, West Virginia is looking to replicate the success in Tennessee, where lawmakers extended the state’s tuition-free community college program to adults after a successful pilot program, and saw massive spikes in public 2-year college enrollment.

And with a few other tweaks, West Virginia could ensure that students truly have an affordable degree program at their fingertips. The net price currently for low-income students attending public 2-year colleges in West Virginia is $5,856. The cost of WV Invests is slated to be around $900 per recipient, or $10 million total. By spending a bit more, the state could be the first in the country to offer guaranteed debt-free community college as well, assuming the student chips in with a 10-hour per week job. By investing a total of $20 million—with an m—the state could have some funds left over to improve community college capacity, course offerings, and student services:

A Small Increase in WV Invests Could Guarantee Debt-Free Community College

Unmet Need for Low-Income Students, 2-Year Colleges:

$5,856

Wages from Part-Time Work ($8.75 minimum wage):

$4,375

Average WV Invests Award:                                               

$900

Additional Investment Per-Student Needed:         

$581

Source: IPEDS, National Council on State Legislatures

Unfortunately, a few other features of the plan fall flat, and seem designed to score political points rather than achieve some measurable policy goal. First, the plan being proposed has a requirement that students stay in-state for 2 years after college, or else the benefit turns into a student loan, with an interest rate determined by the state. On its face, this seems harmless—after all, a state wants to reap the benefits of its investments in talent. And there are a few exemptions, such as a student entering into military service or going to graduate school elsewhere, as well as vaguely defined circumstances “prescribed by council through rule.”

But this is a solution in search of a problem. West Virginia, admittedly, is among the states with the highest rate of out-migration of college graduates to other states. And yet, their net migration rate of college graduates is only -4%. In other words, very few people are moving across state lines at all, and the problem of college graduates fleeing the state is more myth than reality. Putting a back-end requirement that students stay in-state will harm those who need to move across state lines to care for family members. If the goal is to create meaningful employment opportunities for community college graduates in West Virginia, the solution should not be to put the onus squarely on students themselves. Ensuring that employers pay meaningful wages and improve job quality for community college graduates is a far better place to start.

And not least, the creation of an entirely new financial instrument (the student loan that’s converted from a grant) and bureaucracy could cost the state more than they’d ever recoup by ensuring that a middling number of students do not leave the state after graduation. And the loan would have to be administered for students who, by definition, do not live in the state. It’s an ill-thought logistical challenge with little upside.

The second major problem with WV Invests is a requirement that students complete a drug test each semester, and pay for it themselves. In a state ravaged by the opioid epidemic, it makes little sense to deny opportunities to build a pathway to a new career to those suffering from an illness. This is a classic “tough on crime” measure that is designed only to score points and ration the state’s investment.

It’s also non-sensical; West Virginia doesn’t drug-test families who invest in the state’s 529 college savings plan, even though they receive a tax benefit for doing so. And as with the use of criminal history and drug convictions in admissions and financial aid, this type of policy runs the serious risk of harming students of color, and is counterintuitive to the idea that education can help one better their circumstances.

Instead of requiring out-of-pocket drug testing, West Virginia could increase investment in treatment and drug prevention systems across their community college campuses, similar to the way many college campuses have integrated social services and public benefit systems. At the end of the day, if education is to be transformative, it should be transformative for everyone, including those struggling with addiction.

To understand what a well-funded, truly affordable public 2-year system can do, one need look no further than this heartbreaking piece in Belt magazine this week, which outlines the spectacular failure and fallout of one company’s attempt to provide unemployed West Virginian coal miners with coding skills and experience in the tech industry.

This story, and the lawsuit stemming from it, is in many ways a microcosm of the past 3 decades of higher education policy. As the demand for higher education has grown, we have assumed that skills-training alone is the answer to stagnant wages and declining living standards. We have assumed that private providers have their finger on the pulse of the local labor market better than public schools that have been there for decades, and that the cost of a degree program (and the risk of not succeeding) should be borne more and more by students or their parents, rather than being seen as a public investment from which we all recoup benefits. We have not done a good enough job of transforming a wholly inadequate social safety net—from unemployment insurance to health care to child care—into one that ensures that the risks of pursuing an education are properly mitigated. Thus, funding for community colleges has withered, even as the colleges themselves are spending no more than they were over a decade ago.

Community colleges, at their best, are pillars of their communities and key players in thriving local labor markets. They can offer no-cost degrees to students, partner with employers, and connect them to the local workforce in ways that large, investor-driven operations seem less able to do. They can do it without much of the short-term profit-motive that coding bootcamps may feel pressure to fulfill. They can do it without being flashy and pretending that tech jobs will replace coal mining jobs overnight, or offering false promises just to get students in the door with their federal financial aid dollars. And they can do it without cartoonishly blaming the students themselves for program results.

But doing that will require a bit of public investment, and it will mean resisting the allure of cheap political points and additional complexities that prevent everyone from participating. Lawmakers, like those designing WV Invests, shouldn’t be afraid of students, and they shouldn’t be afraid of investing in them. 

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