Virginia Gov. Northam announces plan for tuition-free community college

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam wants to see low- to middle-income community college students studying for jobs in high-demand fields get to school — tuition free.

The Democratic governor announced this week that his budget proposal will include $145 million for what he is calling the “Get Skilled. Get a Job. Give Back” initiative, or “G3.”

“This investment will increase access by offering last dollar funding to eligible students to pay for tuition fees and textbooks,” Northam said during a news conference Thursday.

The program will help students studying for careers in areas such as skilled trades, health care, technology and early childhood education pay for the expenses that come with going to school, he said.

“There are thousands of jobs out there, and they don’t necessarily require a four-year college education,” Northam added.

He hopes helping students study in high-demand fields will help businesses in the commonwealth fill job vacancies.

Full details on how the program would work would be presented during the introduction of his budget proposal next week, Northam said. He did say lower-income students who receive federal Pell grants could get up to $1,000 a semester to cover the costs of school, plus things such as transportation and child care.

For students to continue getting the help, they will be required to keep their grades up and complete two hours of work experience, community service or public service for every credit hour enrolled.

Not every lawmaker is on board with the proposal, though.

Among those critical of the plan is Republican Del. Mark Cole, who represents Virginia’s 88th District, which includes parts of Fauquier, Spotsylvania and Stafford counties.

“Sounds a little bit like maybe indentured servitude for community college tuition,” said Cole, who is on the Virginia House Education Committee.

Cole said while he believes Northam is focused on the right fields of study, he is concerned the program will be too expensive. “Nothing is free. Somebody somewhere is footing the bill for it,” Cole said.

He believes the state’s 23 community colleges already offer the best higher education value for students, and that a better way to help would be to offer discounts on courses in high-demand fields.

Lawmakers have to sign off on Northam’s proposal, and Cole believes with Democrats taking control of state government next year, support for the plan will be there.

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