From all appearances, West Virginia’s plan to increase attendance at its community and technical colleges has been a success in its first year. The number of first-time freshmen in the state’s nine CTC schools increased 9.9 percent from fall 2018 to fall 2019, according to data released by the Higher Education Policy Commission and the Community and Technical College System.
BridgeValley CTC, which operates in Kanawha and Fayette counties, had the greatest increase, with a 38.3% rise. Contrary to the overall trend, however, Southern West Virginia CTC had a 4.6% decline, which might suggest a more aggressive campaign will be needed to reach prospective students in this region.
Collectively, community colleges saw 3,020 first-time freshmen this fall, the highest since 2016, when there were about 3,290. The state’s overall population and college-going rates had been decreasing.
Sarah Tucker, the top administrator of the education oversight agencies, said it would be difficult to determine how much of the first-time freshmen surge is due to the free tuition program, which the Legislature and Gov. Jim Justice passed earlier this year through Senate Bill 1, according to an article in The Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Data compiled by Tucker’s staff show 1,300 of the 3,020 first-time freshmen this fall applied for the program, and 380 of those applicants received money through it.
Applicants who didn’t receive money through the free tuition program might have gone to CTC without paying tuition anyway. About 1,200 of the program’s more than 5,000 applicants, which includes students who were not first-time freshmen applicants, were able to go to school tuition-free. The reason: The program requires applicants to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and filling out that will show many students that already existing federal and state grant money means community college is often tuition-free for them anyway.
“When the free community college bill was going around last legislative session, I said repeatedly that I thought there would be a number of students who would otherwise not go to college who would suddenly think to themselves ‘I can go to college now because it’ll be free,’” Tucker said, according to The Gazette-Mail.
In a state where a common complaint is that not enough of the work force is prepared for the 21st century economy, getting people into the CTC system is a good thing. Ensuring they don’t have to worry about paying tuition is better.
The governor and the Legislature were wise to enact the tuition-free program to help students who might otherwise not be able to attend school or who might be afraid to apply.
On the flip side, offering a tuition-free education is one thing. To keep the program going, students must reward taxpayers’ faith in them by applying themselves and earning degrees.
Graduation rates won’t be 100%. They seldom are at any school. Students in the CTC system often have challenges their counterparts in the four-year college and university system don’t.
Time will tell how well free tuition actually improves the education level in West Virginia. So far it’s helped 1,200 students. Investing in West Virginians is the best thing state government can do. It’s good to see a program to do that is helping.