via Chris Gentilviso for Richmond Times-Dispatch [link]

When COVID-19 first hit Virginia, the societal impact on education and the workforce was instant. And nearly one year into the pandemic, both spheres still are sorting out how to best move forward.

As college campuses closed their doors, the idea of students staying closer to home gained traction. Community colleges seemed like a natural fit, but as families were hit with personal struggles — job losses, back rent, health issues and more — reality settled in. A Feb. 1 Daily Press report noted that this past fall, Virginia’s community colleges had the lowest number of enrollees since 2002.

Businesses have had their own share of disruptions. A December 2020 snapshot by the Virginia Employment Commission showed a decline in nonagricultural wage and salary employment of 177,900 jobs (-4.4%) compared to December 2019. Industries shedding positions over the past year included education and health services (39,100 jobs, -6.9%), information (3,000 jobs, -4.4%), government (33,300 jobs, -4.5%) and manufacturing (10,200 jobs, -4.2%).

But as community colleges go, so does the workforce. When CNBC ranked Virginia the best state for business in 2019, the commonwealth also earned No. 1 rankings in two subcategories: education and workforce readiness. During a December announcement about the Blueprint Virginia 2030 strategic plan, Virginia Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Barry DuVal said “this is truly the fuel for business in every region” of the state.

A full embrace of Gov. Ralph Northam’s “G3” program — Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back — will add to that fuel. Community colleges are a stabilizer for Virginia workers and businesses as they fight through these chaotic times. As the commonwealth seeks to develop talent and fill high-demand occupations, the G3 program has the right kind of support mechanisms in place to create progress.

Graduation rates are just one measure of education data. But figures from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia show students have struggled in recent years to complete an associate’s degree in a timely manner. In the 2016 freshmen cohort, the percentage of students graduating within three years hovered between 10% and 35% at the commonwealth’s 23 community colleges.

Even prepandemic, the G3 program identified a factor other than tuition costs that can inhibit community college students from successfully completing their studies. A December 2019 release from the governor’s office referred to the need for “wraparound financial assistance” other than traditional tuition, books and fees. Living costs like housing don’t disappear. Family responsibilities like child care continue. Basic needs like food are not a given for too many households.

A Jan. 25 Times-Dispatch news report noted that through the G3 opportunity, full-time students with the highest needs would be eligible for $900 per semester toward those kinds of outside costs. And the legislation carried by House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, has language in place to make sure the assistance benefits students in the present and the overall economy in the future.

First, the G3 initiative truly is for low- and middle-income Virginia students with resources under 400% of the federal poverty level ($100,000 for a family of four). Students have to carry at least six credit hours per semester, as well as file related federal and state aid applications to help determine financial need.

Second, academic performance and progress are priorities. To maintain G3 eligibility, students have to meet federal standards for satisfactory work under Title IV of the 1965 Higher Education Act and exhibit “reasonable progress” toward that three-year associate’s degree timeline. Any student receiving grants for outside living costs has to maintain enrollment in the program or face repayment.

Finally, the definition of “high-demand field” is adaptable — identified as an occupation where “there is a shortage of skilled workers to fill current and anticipated additional job vacancies.” On Wednesday, Virginia’s Career and Workforce-Labor Market Information page pinpointed occupational therapy assistants, physical therapist aides, home health aides, personal financial advisers, and ambulance drivers and attendants as the “fastest-growing occupations by demand.”

But those listings can and will change, and the G3 program should have the ability to keep pace with new developments. Amazon, the Virginia Chamber, the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, and the Virginia Manufacturers Association were key business community supporters identified in the RTD’s recent report.

The pandemic only has heightened the mission of Virginia’s Community Colleges: “We give everyone the opportunity to learn and develop the right skills so lives and communities are strengthened.”

With a full embrace of the G3 program by the General Assembly, we’re confident that mission will be stronger postpandemic for Virginia families and businesses.

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