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Op-Ed: Tuition assistance program a ‘game-changer’

As Tidewater Community College’s new president, I would like to tell you why the “Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back” (G3) initiative, which represents a fraction of Gov. Ralph’s Northam’s proposed $135 billion budget, has my full support.

Hampton Roads already feels like home to me after moving here just a few weeks ago. I am encouraged by the students here, the business leaders in this community and our state legislators in Richmond. I see a positivity that’s contagious along with a commitment to moving forward to sustain our economy and our region.

Here’s how the proposal the governor calls G3 can play a significant role.

The G3 initiative builds upon the commonwealth’s investment in the already successful FastForward workforce training program. Hundreds of success stories, including many from here at TCC, stem from the program, which helps Virginians get jobs at competitive salaries through fast-track credential training.

The G3 plan would expand access and enable low- and middle-income Virginians to “get skilled” or receive workforce training in fields where employers have identified a shortage. We are talking about health care, information technology and computer science, manufacturing and skilled trades, early childhood education and public safety.

The need to fill these “new collar” or middle-skill jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree is immediate. These careers range from cybersecurity specialists to physician’s assistants, electricians to shipbuilders.

The G3 grant program would be open to any Virginia resident who qualifies for in-state tuition and whose family income falls below an identified threshold. The G3 program would be a “last-dollar” plan, meaning students enrolling in a qualifying certificate or degree program must first be eligible for federal financial aid. G3 funds would cover the difference between what financial aid pays and the cost of tuition, fees and books for the program.

We know that a significant part of our population in Hampton Roads would benefit.

I know firsthand how everyday expenses — food, childcare costs and transportation — prohibit many from even considering college.

Accountability is an important component of Northam’s G3 plan. Enrolled students must maintain a 2.0 GPA and complete a certificate in the first year. Upon graduation, they would “give back” through community service or by working in economically depressed areas of Virginia, for a nonprofit or local or state government.

I’m not overselling the G3 proposal when I call it a game-changer. Access to higher education would be expanded to hundreds if not thousands of students who want a better life for themselves and their families.

I spoke with a young woman during my first week here who lives within walking distance of our Norfolk campus. She wants to go to college but doesn’t have the means. When she learned I was the new TCC president, she asked me if it was possible for someone in her situation to earn a certificate in phlebotomy so that she could qualify for a good job to secure a future for herself.

The G3 plan will help individuals such as her. She’s one student, but we know from our research that thousands of others are eager to make a similar investment in themselves if the pathway existed for them to do it.

The governor’s office estimates that students enrolled in any of the five programs can increase their wages by 60%. Meanwhile, the state benefits by receiving double the amount in state taxes. That’s a win-win. A higher-skilled workforce would make our state more attractive to businesses.

At TCC, we would be better equipped to serve more students who would, in turn, give back to the commonwealth. Half the states around the country have enacted programs to make community college more affordable and accessible, including our neighbors in Delaware, Maryland and West Virginia.

I hope Virginians will have the same opportunity.

Marcia Conston became Tidewater Community College’s sixth president in January.