Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation Monday establishing tuition-free community college for low- and middle-income students studying for jobs in high-demand fields.
The program targets students pursuing degrees in such industries as healthcare, computer science and early childhood education within the Virginia Community College System, according to the governor's office.
Education experts have said community colleges, which suffered big enrollment losses during the pandemic, will be key in helping restore the economy after the health crisis.
Northam, a Democrat, said during his run for governor that free community college would be one of his cornerstone initiatives. The new program, called the "Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back," or G3, delivers on that promise, he said in a statement.
The state devoted $36 million to G3 and expects it will assist 36,000 state residents who are seeking credentials in high-demand fields. State officials will determine which academic programs qualify under G3. The Virginia Board of Workforce Development, along with staff members of two committees in the Virginia General Assembly, and other state and college officials, will make recommendations to the governor and the legislature by December each year as to which programs meet the requirements.
G3 covers expenses beyond tuition, including food, transportation and child care. However, it is a last-dollar program, meaning it accounts for all other financial aid before making an award.
Students can get up to a $900 grant per semester, and up to $450 for a summer term.
Virginia's Education Secretary, Atif Qarni, said in a statement that the pandemic has delayed low- and middle-income Virginians from looking for new jobs.
State and federal officials broadly have extolled the benefits of two-year colleges as the U.S. looks to rebuild the economy post pandemic. The new U.S. Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, said during his confirmation hearing in February that two-year colleges are the nation's "best-kept secret."
And Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, used federal relief dollars to help create a tuition-free community college initiative for frontline workers during the early months of pandemic.
More than a dozen states offer some form of tuition-free community college. The policy has garnered attention at the federal level, too.
President Joe Biden pledged on the campaign trail to make two-year schools tuition free, later expanding his goal to free four-year public college for families earning up to $125,000. Biden's administration is crafting a roughly $3 trillion spending package that would include tuition-free community college, The Washington Post reported.