community college bill

Johnny Moore, president of Pierpont Community & Technical College, testifies Tuesday before West Virginia Senate Education Committee members (from left): Sue Cline, R-Wyoming; Mike Azinger, R-Wood; Robert Beach, D-Monongalia; Mike Romano, D-Harrison; and Donna Boley, R-Pleasants. CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail

West Virginia’s Senate Education Committee advanced a bill Tuesday to make in-state community college free, after amending the legislation to offer the opportunity to more students.

“I want you to remember this day, if you will,” said Committee Chairman Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, after his committee passed Senate Bill 284 on to the Senate Finance Committee in a voice vote with no nays heard. He said it could be a historic day in education.

“Nothing’s perfect, but I really believe this is a great start,” Mann said.

There were no nays heard in accepting an amended version of the bill that more clearly offered free community college to home-schooled and private school students, as well as public school students. There were nays heard, however, in a voice vote to offer it to students under 20 who haven’t gone through special programs.

Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, made the successful amendment that removed the restriction that said students not taking part in “Advanced Career Education” programs, which start in high school, must wait until they’re at least 20 before receiving free community college.

Romano’s amendment made the eligible age 18 or younger, if a student has earned a high school diploma or its equivalent. This seems to effectively make the ACE programs optional.

James Bailey, senior counsel for Gov. Jim Justice, who backs the bill, said the age-20 restriction was added partly because of cost considerations and partly to prevent those who really intend to go to four-year colleges from using a free two years of community college as a springboard to that.

Following the amendment’s passage, Bailey said the West VirginCommunity and Technical College System will work on estimating the new financial impact of the bill. The system previously estimated about a $7 million cost for the community college side of it.

CTCS Chancellor Sarah Tucker said the amendment won’t double the cost of the program but added that she’s not sure of a particular percentage change in the cost.

“We’re going to go back and take a look at what the effects of the amendment will be, both on the fiscal note and, you know, any programmatic changes,” Tucker said. She said the advancement of the bill in general “is a huge deal, and one that I’m extremely grateful for.”

Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne and former chairman of Senate Education, said he didn’t know if he agreed with Romano’s amendment, suggesting, instead, that lawmakers change the age later, if problems are discovered.

“Before we get all, you know, touchy-feely here about, you know, making sure we include these students on some of the things, let’s get to the facts of what we’re trying to do,” Plymale said. “We’re trying to get students interested in the ninth grade, the 10th grade, and we’re trying to get them in a pipeline program that they can flow into the community and technical colleges.

“I think that we’re trying to make a perfect bill that fits every situation that doesn’t necessarily hit where we’re trying to go. If you have a student right now that graduates from high school, they haven’t gone through those pipeline programs. One of the main elements of this bill is to get kids in high school to start thinking about careers and pipelines.”

“The kids who are in the ACE programs already are incentivized to go forward and go through this technical college education, in order to complete that,” Romano replied. “What I’m worried about are the kids who are not in that ACE program, the kids who lack a direction when they graduate from high school, the kids that aren’t qualified to go to a four-year program. Those are the kids who we’re going to lose if we don’t reduce this age down to 18.”

He said students will still be incentivized to go through ACE programs, “because all they’re going to do is go to community college to pick up the few credits they need.”

“I don’t want to miss the opportunity to make this the best bill it can be,” Romano said.

Reach Ryan Quinn at,, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.