In his State of the State Address, Governor Jim Justice made clear his intention to make West Virginia’s community and technical colleges free for in-state students. A bill to accomplish that was introduced shortly after this year’s state Legislative session began.

The main goal of the bill is to cultivate a strong workforce in West Virginia by making education at community and technical colleges more accessible. West Virginia Public Broadcasting took a closer look at CTCs and their focus on workforce training.

We first heard rumblings about a bill to make community and technical colleges free to everyone in West Virginia in December, when Senate President Mitch Carmichael announced he was drafting a proposal with that focus in mind for the 2018 state Legislative session.

And in Governor Jim Justice’s State of State Address, we heard more to that effect.

It was only five days after the governor’s address that a bill to make CTCs free or more affordable was introduced in the state Legislature — Senate Bill 284.

In its current form, Senate Bill 284 would create a grant program of $7 million for tuition and fees at a community and technical college for students to use after all other forms of financial aid have been exhausted. A prospective student would need to be at least 18-years-old with a high school diploma, or equivalent, and agree to remain in the state as a taxpayer for at least two years and fulfill some community service.

Located here in the Eastern Panhandle – in Martinsburg, Berkeley County – Blue Ridge Community and Technical College is one of nine public CTCs in West Virginia that could feel the effects of Senate Bill 284.

West Virginia’s 9 CTCs Include:

  1. Blue Ridge Community & Technical College
  2. Blue Ridge Community and Technical College located in Martinsburg, Berkeley County.

    BridgeValley Community & Technical College

  3. Eastern WV Community & Technical College
  4. Mountwest Community & Technical College
  5. New River Community & Technical College
  6. Pierpont Community & Technical College
  7. Southern WV Community & Technical College
  8. West Virginia Northern Community College
  9. West Virginia University at Parkersburg

Leslie See is Vice President of Enrollment Management. She says community and technical colleges fill a role in producing an educated workforce with the skills needed for today’s jobs.

Leslie See, Vice President of Enrollment Management at Blue Ridge CTC.

“The cycle of education, when you look at it historically, is that there was a divide between what skills were needed for labor positions and the baccalaureate degree, so community college really fill that gap now,” See noted, “because the workforce now has automation, it has robotics, it has a new level of technology, even if you don’t stay current with even using a computer, you could get behind very quickly. So, the education a community college provides is giving those technical, tangible skills.”

West Virginia’s CTCs work closely with local employers to help fill demand in each geographic region. In the Eastern Panhandle, Blue Ridge provides training for careers in cyber security, software development, manufacturing and health care.

“Really, we have a little bit of everything, whether it’s short term, whether it’s an associates degree, certification, really, we have over 70 degrees and certificates to choose from,” See said.

According to the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, jobs in manufacturing, IT, and health care are all in demand in the state – and to be qualified for those jobs, several only need a degree or certification from a CTC.

Musselman High School senior Alexandria Cox wants to be a nurse. She’s looking to get her associate’s degree from Blue Ridge.

“I’m a big heart, like, I’m a giver, I’m a people-pleaser. I just like seeing people smile and get better,” Cox said.

Cox just turned 18 and would like to eventually take her nursing degree into the military.

Alexandria Cox, Musselman High School Senior. She plans to pursue an Associate’s Degree in Nursing at Blue Ridge CTC.

There are several industry partnerships at Blue Ridge, and the oldest is its nursing program. Cox will get “real-world” training while she studies at Blue Ridge in the form of clinical rotations at Berkeley Medical Center — which is part of WVU Medicine.

Cox says she’s excited about the idea of training at Berkeley Medical Center and notes she has a friend who’s already in the program.

“She goes here, and she does do her clinical trials, and she says she loves it, so it makes me even more excited, because that’s someone who goes here and she does her clinical trials, and she says it’s great, you meet new people, you get insight on what your occupation’s gonna be, what her career’s gonna look forward too,” Cox explained.

At Berkeley and Jefferson Medical Centers, Samantha Richards is the Vice President and Chief Nursing Officer for Patient Care Services. She oversees the nursing staff and is also in charge of the nurse trainees who come in from Blue Ridge.

Samantha Richards (standing), Vice President and Chief Nursing Officer for Patient Care Services, Berkeley and Jefferson Medical Centers chatting with two nurses.

“Being able to have a partnership with Blue Ridge allows us to expand our services and to have nurses who can come into our workforce,” Richards noted, “so when we do new services, for example, opening a NICU or a CATH lab, and so forth, we need additional personnel to do that, and without having Blue Ridge as a technical school to be able to graduate nurses in a two-year program, that allows us to meet the needs of the continued growth and development, which is great for our community.”

Richards says Berkeley and Jefferson Medical Centers don’t differentiate between a bachelor’s degree and an associate’s degree in nursing.

“Starting out as a brand-new nurse, usually starting out, you can make about $37,000 to $42,000 a year, as a nurse,” Richards said, “so for somebody who went to a two-year program, it’s really a nice starting point for a salary.”

Community and technical colleges can provide an affordable first step for many prospective students, and Leslie See at Blue Ridge hopes Senate Bill 284 will help more people see the potential CTCs bring to the table.

“Let community colleges not be a second choice, or a second chance, which they can be a second chance, but also let it be a first consideration,” See said, “because there are so many opportunities at your community college that really, people need to explore.”

Senate Bill 284 passed out of the Senate chamber and is now being considered in the House.

This article was originally published on West Virginia Public Broadcasting. 

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