Under Northam’s G3 Community College Plan, Students In Tech, Construction Would See Free Tuition
Governor Ralph Northam recently announced a bold plan to help pay the way for Virginia community college students in select career paths. It’s called “Get skilled, Get a Job, Give back,” or G3. Now, the plan is in the hands of lawmakers.
“I am super excited about the proposal for tuition-free community colleges,” said Democratic Senator Ghazala Hashmi.
Community college is an important issue for Hashmi; she worked for J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond for the past two decades. As a professor, she heard from students who couldn’t afford to stay in school because of other life challenges.
“I've had students who have dropped out in the middle of a semester because they don't have gas money,” Hashmi said. “Or they drop out because they can't pay the rent for the rest of the month, they become homeless. We have students who have food insecurity, or there're childcare concerns.”
Over half of Virginia college students attend community college. One of the big reasons? It’s more affordable than most four-year colleges. That’s why Hashmi says she’s hopeful Northam’s plan to help make it even more affordable will help more students stay in school.
“Most of the people who come to community college are working adults,” Hashmi said. “They fully plan to continue living here [in Virginia].”
Northam’s budget proposal includes $145 million that’d go directly to students who want to work in a handful of specialized careers. Under the plan, low and middle income students could attend community college tuition-free in exchange for two hours of community service or work for every credit enrolled in.
The funding will be allocated to community colleges based on the number of eligible students enrolled in the qualifying programs. While all qualifying students (with an income of about $100,000 or less for a family of four) would get free tuition, fees and books, lower-income students (eligible for a full federal Pell Grant) would get $1,000 in extra grants per semester to pay for other expenses, like housing and childcare.
“This isn't about building campuses,” said Jeff Kraus, a spokesperson for the Virginia Community College System (VCCS). “This is about affordable pathways for students.”
Kraus says the governor’s plan is an elaborate financial aid program that’s designed to solve two big problems. “One is: how do we help more Virginia families access the higher education they need to have good paying careers?”
The other challenge: finding and training workers for Virginia employers in high-demand fields. Kraus says Northam’s plan would help students graduate, and graduate sooner so they can enter the workforce. Right now, most community college students in the state only attend school part-time.
“So we have students who are taking four or five years to complete an associate’s degree,” Kraus said.
Healthcare is one big industry Northam’s plan would target. According to the Northam administration, healthcare companies are the biggest employers of community college graduates in Virginia.
More specifically, the G3 plan would help pay for careers in nursing, physical therapy, and dental hygiene to name a few. Nursing is one of the most in-demand healthcare jobs across the state and locally. Bon Secours has hundreds of open nursing jobs just in Richmond.
“If we continue to work together to create the right mix of pipeline opportunities through community colleges, we will be able to fill more nursing positions in the years to come,” said Paul Junod, Vice President and Strategic HR Partner with Bon Secours. “We look forward to growing opportunities for nursing education expansion.”
Other high-demand fields covered under the proposal include early childhood education, technology, public safety and trades. Eligible programs in early childhood education include childcare workers and teaching assistants. Kathy Glazer, president of the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation, supports the proposal. She said, "We see the need to keep a bench of talent and make sure that the workforce is aligned along the way." Technology jobs include programmers, cybersecurity and network administrators. Many of the education and tech credits could be transferred to a local four-year institution.
Skilled trades include advanced manufacturing and construction jobs such as plumbers, electricians and shipbuilders. “It is definitely one of the biggest issues that we have as an industry,” said Andrew Clark, spokesperson for the Home Builders Association of Virginia. Clark says he gets calls all the time from builders who can’t find a construction crew.
Ed Dalrymple runs Chemung Contracting Corp., serving the Culpeper and Northern Virginia areas. Dalrymple says his company has about 125 total employees in Virginia. But he also has 15-20 unfilled positions. That means that every week he has to turn down jobs because he couldn’t find enough skilled workers to fill open positions.
“We are having a difficult time with meeting those needs,” Dalrymble said. “Part of it is the demand of the project and the other part is for people that are retiring.”
Dalrymple partnered with Germanna Community College in Fredericksburg a few years ago to start an apprenticeship program, and to help recruit younger people like 34-year-old Allen Miller. Miller is a former apprentice-turned-asphalt-plant-manager.
“Lots of people are aging out of the industry,” Miller said. “There's not a lot of young people in it. I’m younger than most of the people that I work with, so he’s trying to find employees that will be around for a while, while the majority of the employees he has now are sort of reaching retirement age.” Jeff Kraus with VCCS says electricians are one of the most high-demand jobs in Northern Virginia right now. That industry is also aging.
“Think about it: all that technology everywhere, all those big servers, all that stuff happening. You need energy to make it happen,” Kraus said. “And if you don't have the electricians to build out your facilities and maintain them, where are you going to be? It’s not promising.”
According to a spokesperson for Governor Ralph Northam, the G3 plan is not directly linked to the Amazon deal. However, she noted in an email statement that “there is a broad consensus on the need to train workers for high-demand jobs; both the ‘Tech Talent pipeline’ agreement (through the Amazon deal) and ‘G3’ aim to address this problem.”
Kraus says helping train a local workforce for big employers like Amazon is quickly becoming a huge part of the community college system mission. He says there are about 180 different programs across the state’s 23 community colleges eligible for Northam’s G3 program now, with others expected to come online soon.
“We basically have the build the airplane while we're in flight,” Kraus said.
Lawmakers will have to weigh funding for the G3 program along with several other education-related proposals in the Governor’s budget this year.
*Editors note: Our story incorrectly stated the dollar amount per semester as $2,000. This story has been corrected to reflect the actual amount of $1,000.