Even With a New Name, Community College Can Be Free

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

Lost in the discussion of last year’s General Assembly actions and the current discussion of renaming community colleges is the restoration of funding for Governor Northam’s “Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back” (G3) program. This program will provide a free community college education for low-and middle-income students enrolled in “high demand” programs.

To be eligible, a student’s family income must be equal to or lower than 400 percent of the federal poverty level. According to the Virginia Community College System, “As a rule of thumb, students could qualify for G3 support if they come from a family of four with a household income of $106,000 per year.” The student must also be enrolled in one of numerous, designated “high demand” programs and taking at least six credit hours per semester. (A list of the high demand programs can be found here.)

G3 program grants cover the “last dollar” (after accounting for any other federal or state financial assistance available) cost of tuition, mandatory fees, and textbooks. In addition, each student in the program will be eligible for a “Student Support Incentive” grant  of up to $900 per semester.

Language added in the 2021 expanded eligibility to include “healthcare workers, first responders and other essential workers …that are serving in the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic” who “shall…be eligible for programs offered under the G-3 initiative that enhance or upgrade their skills at no cost during the period that is covered under the state of emergency and for two years thereafter.”

The enacted budget includes an appropriation of $34.5 million for the G3 program in the current fiscal year. This program has been the subject of discussion on Bacon’s Rebellion here and here.

Despite their lower costs and the ability to transfer credits to four-year institutions, enrollment in community colleges has been falling in recent years. The last academic year, the year of the pandemic, was no exception. Although people laid off from their jobs due to the pandemic could have used that as an opportunity to get training in new skills, community college enrollment declined by more than 7,000 (5%) to its lowest level since 2002. It will be interesting to see what effect the G3 program will have on boosting enrollment in the upcoming fall semester.