Mountain Empire Community College G3 program - Center for Workforce and Innovation in Appalchia

Mike Rose, an instructor at Mountain Empire Community College’s Center for Workforce and Innovation in Appalachia, checks the control panel on a plasma cutter in the center’s welding and fabrication lab. The ‘Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back’ legislation signed Monday by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam will make dozens of career-entry degree and training programs at MECC and other community colleges tuition free starting in fall 2021.

BIG STONE GAP — Mountain Empire Community College and its sisters across Virginia will be able to make several degree and certificate programs tuition free this fall, thanks to a $36 million program signed into law this week.

The “Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back” package signed on Monday by Gov. Ralph Northam stems from a campaign by Northam in the past two years for the Virginia Community College System to provide tuition-free job training in high-demand fields.

Northam, in Monday’s signing ceremony, said the G3 program focuses on training and degree programs including health care, information technology and computer science, manufacturing and skilled trades, public safety and early childhood education.

MECC President Kristin Westover on Tuesday said the G3 program will allow students in several dozen MECC programs to take advantage of free tuition starting in the 2021-22 academic year.

“We’ve got 80 programs that are fully fundable under G3, from associate of applied science degrees and career certificates to industry-accepted training,” Westover said. “This creates an incredible opportunity for students looking to train in several professions.”

“The governor’s G3 initiative will make earning the necessary skills to fully participate in our 21st century economy affordable for more Virginians,” Virginia Community College System Chancellor Glenn Dubois said during the bill signing. “Virginia’s 23 community colleges are ready to help students prepare for and succeed in the high-demand jobs of today and tomorrow.”

While Northam said G3 will cover tuition, books and fees, Westover said the program initially will be tuition-only. She said students receiving financial aid such as Pell grants will see that aid supplemented with G3 funds to cover their entire tuition cost. Other financial aid such as scholarships can be used by students to cover books and materials.

“In many programs we look to include materials online that help reduce students’ book costs,” Westover said, pointing to the college’s experience during the pandemic with online courses and use of online texts and learning resources.

Westover said the college’s ongoing strategic planning process is looking at ways to make book costs part of the free-tuition program.

The range of programs may differ between community colleges, Westover said, but the 80 G3-eligible MECC programs include law enforcement and corrections; nursing and associated health sciences and medical records/billing; the college’s energy science program; welding and fabrication; electrical work; computer science; and several other degree programs associated with entering a career.

Westover said G3 also covers any general education courses required as part of any of the eligible career-track programs.

G3 will also help students at the lowest income levels with expenses including food, transportation and child care. Full-time students who qualify for a full federal Pell grant will receive student-support incentive grants on a semester basis up to $900 per semester and up to $450 per summer term. Community colleges will see a performance payment for every eligible student receiving a student-support incentive grant that successfully completes 30 credit hours. For each student earning an associate degree, the colleges will see an additional performance payment.

G3 also will fund two career counseling positions to help incoming students find a training or career program that fits their goals, Westover said.

While G3 does not start officially until the fall 2021 semester, Westover said that federal CARES Act and other federal and state funding that became available from the COVID-19 pandemic could allow students looking at training in a new career to get a head start with summer classes.

Students planning to enter the G3 program need to file federal and state student financial aid applications, including the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). In the wake of pandemic-related drops in FAFSA completion Northam recently announced a statewide effort to offer free, one-on-one FAFSA advising. Until June 30, 2021, Virginia students and families can go to to schedule a virtual meeting with a FAFSA adviser.

“If students come to us this summer, we will try to find a way to get them financial aid,” Westover said.