The Harvest Foundation has pledged to pay for every student in Martinsville and Henry County to attend the local community college for the next 13 years. Photo courtesy of The Harvest Foundation.

Henry County’s 5-year-olds had a big announcement for their parents as they began their education this fall: “I’m going to college.”

Every kindergartner in the county was sent home with a letter to their families, along with a t-shirt and a photo of each child holding signs that said, “future college graduate,” announcing that for the next 13 years, the Harvest Foundation is covering the full cost of an associate degree or trade program at Patrick & Henry Community College. It’s an ambitious effort that has already seen positive results in its pilot. 

On Sept. 30, the Foundation, which supports local economic development efforts, announced the 13-year, $10.3 million grant, to Patrick & Henry Community College (P&HCC) to support the SEED Fund, which will ensure a college education is available at no cost to every high school graduate in Martinsville-Henry County. 

The SEED Fund was established at P&HCC in 2017 as a three-year pilot program. Since the inception of the program, the first two cohorts of SEED students are completing college at a rate that is double the national average for community college students: nationwide that rate is 35%, but for SEED students it’s 65%. 

Fall to spring retention rates increased by six percent while fall to fall retention rates increased by 16%, meaning SEED students are staying in school and earning credentials at higher rates than their counterparts. Four years in, about 250 students apply per year for SEED. 

To qualify for the SEED Fund, a high school graduate must have a minimum grade point average of 2.5 and be a resident of Martinsville-Henry County. SEED students must file a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) each year, complete eight hours of community service each year, and attend college advising. 

F. DeWitt House Jr. is the senior program officer with the Foundation, overseeing the SEED program. He’s been involved in local education for more than 30 years, most recently as the assistant superintendent for instruction for the Henry County Public School system.

Education is one of the many ways they help workforce development, he said. There are businesses looking to locate in the county and want a willing and educated workforce. It also “has kids aspire to something,” he said. 

While the program works for an associate degree that transfers to a four-year college, the, funding commitment works for a trade program, too. A child in Martinsville or Henry County can use it to mold their future into whatever they imagine. He knows students who have used it for nursing, for welding, to become manufacturing technicians, chefs and accountants among other applications. 

And because he’s embedded in the community, he hears from people as they take notice of this new opportunity. When out to dinner, a local restaurant owner told him his child is going to be a SEED student.

And a former colleague, who is responsible for two great grandchildren, received that letter about guaranteed funding recently. 

“She said, ‘What a blessing we don’t have to worry,’” he said. 

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High school students attend an informational session at Patrick & Henry Community College. Photo courtesy of The Harvest Foundation.

While guaranteed college for eligible high schoolers would be big news for any community, it’s especially welcomed for Henry residents, for whom college education is not a given. As of 2019, the population of roughly 50,000 had been declining due to an aging core of residents and a stiff outflow of children seeking higher education and better jobs. 

Those who graduated high school and some community college was 80%, lower than the 88% U.S. average, according to the Census Bureau. About 14% have a bachelor’s degree in the county compared to 32% nationwide. And more than 14% of the county live in poverty, according to the most recent data. That’s not far from the national average, which has hovered around 13%. 

These numbers jump when considering Martinsville on its own. Twenty-three percent live in poverty there. And there are slightly more educated residents, suggesting those without an education suffer more in the city. 

But there’s good news, too. In recent years there has been a 5% increase in employment. And due to economic development efforts, they may have more businesses coming. If more children stayed locally and got skilled, the Harvest Foundation hopes to keep that rate increasing. For example, this October, VF Corp., a Colorado-based footwear brand, announced it will invest $10.2 million to grow its operation in Henry County, creating 82 new jobs.

Also this year, SCHOCK GmbH, the inventor of quartz composite sinks, committed $85 million to establish its first U.S. manufacturing operation in Henry County.

The county was once very prosperous. Part of Virginia’s tobacco belt, Martinsville’s main industry was processing tobacco and according to reports it was the “plug tobacco capital of the world.” But like a puff of smoke, that industry dissipated as if into the air. 

The manufacture of furniture and textiles have also been major employers. A boom in textiles in the 1980s meant Martinsville could boast of having more millionaires per capita than any city in America. But in the early 1990s, globalization and other factors made local manufacturing economically unsustainable. They seemed to shutter overnight. 

Suddenly, the only thing Martinsville was known for was its NASCAR track — and unemployment. 

But P&HCC president Greg Hodges said he “hope(s) to see the conversation change in the next decade. I remember the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s. This is an investment in hope. We were the furniture and textile capital, then became the unemployment capital.”

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The ceremonial check presentation. Photo courtesy of The Harvest Foundation.

William “Wes” Seiy is 21 and already has his career figured out. He grew up on a farm in Axton and said there was always something on the farm that needed fixing. When thinking about his career, welding just made sense. When his college counselor told him about the SEED program, he realized it was the ideal way to reach his goals.

He completed his course of study from 2019 to 2021 at P&HCC. Now, he has a full-time job welding locally and plans to one day own his own welding business. He’s continuing to work on certifications with welding instructor Glen Belcher at the community college, to gain as many skills as he can since he was given this rare opportunity to begin his education without barriers. 

Belcher began locally, too, but found a love for teaching after his certification. And like Wes, he appreciated that welding is a skill that has a future in southside Virginia. After teaching welders in Danville and Rockingham, he was able to come home to teach. 

“If you’re willing to work, you can find work,” he said about the skill.  

When he met Wes, knew he had the work ethic to be successful. So, Belcher worked closely with him to achieve his certification. It’s his goal for every student who comes through his welding shop: “make him better than me. It’s not a better feeling than seeing him succeed.”

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High school students attend an informational session at Patrick & Henry Community College. Photo courtesy of The Harvest Foundation.

Hodges also remembers the “dinner table conversation” of college costs. Like most people who live and work in Henry County, he’s from there and grew up knowing that an education was a ticket to the middle class.  

“Removing the barrier of finances critical,” he said. “Now a whole generation doesn’t have to ask can we afford college.”

SEED initially began as a conversation between the Foundation and P&HCC in 2016 on how to improve completion rates. 

“We know that students come here for a job or better job,” he said. “How do we help them get there?”

But what became apparent to him, to P&HCC previous president Angeline Goodwin who was instrumental in starting the process, and to House when creating the program was that finances were not enough. It was important to include wraparound services: textbooks, counseling, and ways to get involved with the community that ensured students were supported. 

They found all of that in the Tennessee Promise scholarship, which provides two years of tuition-free attendance at a community or technical college in Tennessee along with mentorship, and based their program on it. 

“While removing the financial burden is key, a critical component of Tennessee Promise is the individual guidance each participant will receive from a mentor who will assist the student as he or she navigates the college admission process,” says the state’s website on the program. 

The Tennessee Promise began in May 2014. Now, at least 30 other states have active or proposed programs like this, whether local or statewide. Each hope to tackle barriers to college that are rising higher as tuition growth outpaces inflation and earnings.

But it hearkens back to a movement like the Harvest Foundation. In 1999, the Tennessee-based Ayers Foundation provided grants of up to $4,000 per year to students from rural Decatur and Henderson Counties. Then Knox County had a program. And it grew from there. 

About 60% of Tennessee’s public high school graduates moved on to college until the class of 2014-15, when the figure jumped to 65%.

But at the same time Promise was launched, Tennessee Reconnect was introduced to pay technical college tuition for students who were 25 and older, and later, for nontraditional students in community colleges as well.

That is a demographic that is in need here, as well. Hodges said that the average age of a P&HCC student is ticking upward. 

“More are coming back to reskill and retrain,” he said. “Two thirds of our students are low income. Many also first generation, and eligible for the Pell grant.”

While SEED addresses the needs of young students, the older reskilling group relies on the new G3 program in Virginia. Announced by Gov. Ralph Northam in March, the G3 (Get a skill, Get a job, Get ahead) program makes it possible for low income Virginians to pursue jobs in high-demand fields. G3 students can select from a list of approved programs in five high-need career areas: health care, information technology, manufacturing and skilled trades, early childhood education and public safety.

The G3 Initiative pays for a student’s tuition, fees and enrollment, and provides extra money students can use for living expenses. At his last report on the G3 program, Hodges said about 100 students at the college are using it. 

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A ceremonial tree planting to mark the program. Photo courtesy of The Harvest Foundation.

Next for the SEED program is expanding to the community college’s other major service area: Patrick County. 

Hodges said fundraising has begun to ensure Patrick County students have the same opportunity. There’s no specific timeline in place for those funds to come available, but he said he hopes to unveil plans soon. 

“It’s not an expense,” he said. “It’s an investment in children and the economic vitality of the area.”

And as for detractors who would say people will move there just to take advantage of the free tuition, both he and House had the same response:  let them come. For them, it’s time the region is seen as a population attractor for its way of life and the advantages their youth have. 

As much as SEED is a concrete asset for Martinsville-Henry County, it’s a symbol to the outside world of their tenacity. 

There are reminders of that throughout the community. After announcing the 13-year commitment, officials planted a dogwood tree hoping the high school class of 2034 will visit that very spot to dream about their futures under a strong, leafy bough. The plaque installed next to it says it all: “this tree represents a promise.”

Lindley Estes is a reporter and editor originally from Southside's Lunenburg County, but now based in...