Free Community College is a Good Idea, Residency Requirements and Drug Tests are Not

West Virginia joins states around the country in moving towards free higher education, with SB 284, the free community college bill supported by Governor Justice and Senate President Carmichael. The "WV Invest Grant" program would provide a grant offsetting tuition for eligible students who enroll in one of the state's two year colleges.

The grant program would come with some typical requirements. Recipients would have to maintain a 2.0 GPA and enroll in at least six credit hours per semester. The program would also require recipients to pass a drug test before each semester and would require them to live in West Virginia for two years after graduating. If they live outside of the state, recipients would have to pay back the grant, plus interest.

While wanting to keep educated students in West Virginia is desirable, requiring it under penalty of incurring debt could do more harm than good. Geographic mobility is an important aspect of economic success, particularly for college educated workers. In addition, the quality of a worker's jobs in their early career has a big impact on the quality of jobs they have later in life. Preventing students from taking higher paying jobs in other states could not only cost them now, but hurt their careers over time. Many major life decisions are made soon after graduation, placing what is essentially a large tax on some of those decisions would be disruptive to many lives.

The policy could also create problems for those students who find themselves unemployed after graduating. Those students will have a strong incentive to remain unemployed in West Virginia, rather than take a low-paying job in another state and incur a large debt. 

The good news is that this restriction is largely unnecessary for West Virginia to get a strong return its investment in community colleges. Already, two-thirds of West Virginia college students who are from West Virginia end up working in-state. And if the program is successful, and even expanded, West Virginia could potential gain residents who come to the state to take advantage of the opportunity for a free education, and stay in order to give that opportunity to their children. A residency requirement isn't necessary for the proposal to pay off and meet its goals.

As for requiring students to pay for and pass a drug test, this is nothing more than a punitive measure that, like the state's drug testing of TANF recipients, will likely result in a waste of time and resources.


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