“This initiative will improve access to training and education programs while preparing more Virginians to get jobs in high-need fields,” Northam said. “We can bring skills to jobs.”
The program is a “last-dollar” initiative, meaning the state will offer funding only after all other forms of aid are exhausted. Participants will be required to complete two hours of community service for every hour of credit they earn in school.
Northam announced the plan — dubbed “G3,” for “Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back” — on the Annandale campus of Northern Virginia Community College, flanked by newly elected members of the Virginia General Assembly. Afterward, he spent half an hour fielding questions from a classroom full of Northern Virginia students.
The governor said he hopes the program, which must be approved by lawmakers, will combat what he described as a worrying trend: Virginia’s shortage of workers able to fill “new collar jobs.” Those include high-demand, well-paying positions that require an associate degree or some form of professional certification short of a four-year diploma.
Megan Healy, Virginia’s chief workforce development adviser, said she has witnessed the state’s lack of skilled labor firsthand.
Businesses “land at my door every day saying they can’t find talent,” Healy said. “This G3 program is really about making sure we can fill jobs.”
The program should boost students, too, according to Northam. The governor said data shows that, on average, people who complete courses of study like the ones outlined in G3 increase their wages by 60 percent after graduation.
“This really is transformative, [and] it’s for the students who are most vulnerable,” said Virginia Education Secretary Atif Qarni, who also spoke at the event.
Northam’s free-tuition plan is part of an expanding movement with other states, including Maryland, offering to cover tuition at community colleges.
Northam will formally present his overall spending plan, which totals $119 billion, to the Virginia legislature’s money committees Tuesday. Ahead of that, he is traveling the state previewing parts of his proposed budget.
On Monday in Richmond, he detailed a $22 million plan to reduce childbirth mortality rates among women of color. On Tuesday, he visited a Northern Virginia preschool and proposed spending $95 million to improve early-childhood education.
Northam began touting his plan for free community college during the 2017 governor’s race — in part as a bid to attract voters energized by the call from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to make public universities free — and the plan he detailed Thursday largely resembled earlier iterations.
To qualify for the G3 program, applicants must be eligible for in-state tuition, and their total household income must be equal to or less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level, translating to roughly $100,000 for a family of four.
Once enrolled, students will forfeit state funding if their grade-point average dips below 2.0, or if they skip required hours of community service, which can include working in economically depressed areas of Virginia, for a nonprofit or for local or state government.
The program also offers special “incentive grants” to students who receive Pell Grants, a form of federal aid available to students whose families earn less than $60,000 a year. Pell recipients who participate in G3 will receive up to $1,000 per semester and up to $500 per summer term.
“We must recognize that there are financial barriers beyond tuition and fees that disproportionately affect our lowest-income students,” Northam said. “When you’re struggling to pay for the basic costs of life, such as a roof over your head, child care, transportation — the cost of tuition can seem far out of reach.”
He noted that many community college students must balance their studies with jobs “just to make ends meet.” His theory was borne out during the roundtable discussion: When Northam and Healy asked whether students work part- or full-time jobs in addition to their studies, the room filled with a flurry of raised hands.
Roughly two dozen students took time off from studying for finals to face the governor across rows of desks in Classroom 302C. Many showed up wearing the clothes of their chosen professions: medical scrubs and jackets and business suits among them.
As they munched on pepperoni pizza and sipped Coke, students quizzed the governor on details.
Ernestine Priebe, 19, wanted to know whether the G3 program would pay for her certification. Priebe, a cybersecurity student, noted that certificates in her field can cost as much as $500.
Northam told her “the answer to that is yes,” before encouraging her to keep studying. Cybersecurity and data analysis are two of the hottest professions at the moment, he said, predicting Priebe will be able to “walk into a great job” after graduation.
Another student, 23-year-old Faiyaz Faruque, pointed out a problem possibly overlooked by the G3 initiative. Faruque said community college students often face daunting travel times between school, work and home.
“It would help to be able to attend an online class . . . that doesn’t involve another 30- to 40-minute” commute, Faruque said.
Northam nodded and promised to look into it.