Mountain Empire Community College. Courtesy of Brad Deel.
Mountain Empire Community College. Courtesy of Brad Deel.

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Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap recently announced a program whereby it will offer free tuition to high school graduates.

This is a potentially transformative thing. In Wise County, 54.1% of working-age adults have a high school degree or less, much higher than the national average of 36.8%. Next door in Lee County, the figure is 55.1%. In Dickenson County, 56.8%. In an economy where employment is increasingly linked to education, increasing the number of workers in the region with at least an associate degree seems an overarching priority.

This announcement might just be one of the most important pieces of news in that part of the state this year.

This free tuition plan – set up as a last-dollar scholarship program, which means it fills in the last dollars after other aid is exhausted – depends on two funding sources. One is the Genan Foundation of Charlottesville, which has contributed $750,000. (Disclosure: Genan is also one of our donors, but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy. As I always like to say, you can be a donor and have no say, as well; here’s how.) Mountain Empire is also asking the local governments in its service area to contribute, with requested amounts ranging from $10,000 in Norton to about $60,000 for Wise County. One locality won’t be asked to kick in – Dickenson County. That’s because there’s a private foundation in Dickenson, the Columbus Phipps Foundation, that is already paying tuition for Dickenson County graduates.

This is the part that gets my attention, but hang tight while I offer some more context. These last-dollar scholarship programs have become known as “promise” programs because they’re considered a promise by the local community to support its high school graduates. By my count, every community college in this part of the state except two – Danville and Virginia Highlands – has such a promise program.

At three of the community colleges that have these programs, they are funded by private philanthropy: the Beacon of Hope program in Lynchburg for Central Virginia, the Wythe-Bland Foundation Scholarship and the Twin County Community Foundation Scholarship for Wytheville Community College, and the Harvest Foundation for Martinsville and Henry County graduates at Patrick & Henry Community College. (Another disclosure: Harvest is also one of our donors; same rules apply.)

Meanwhile, at five others, the promise programs are funded by a mix of private donors and local government tax dollars: Mountain Gateway, New River, Southside, Southwest Virginia and Virginia Western. If Mountain Empire is successful with its requests to local governments, that school will become the sixth with a promise program partially underwritten by local tax dollars.

The amounts and details vary from place to place – bigger communities give more, smaller communities less – so I’ll spare you all the accounting. Here’s a taste, though: Roanoke County this year is contributing $250,000 to the Community College Access Program at Virginia Western; Salem puts in $70,000. At Southside Community College, Greensville County and Emporia each write checks for $10,000.

Now, this is an opinion column so let me make my opinion clear: I think these programs are great. The world is changing. At one time, a high school education was sufficient to guarantee success in the workplace so that’s why states underwrite K-12 education. Now, though, the economy is demanding more but our politics haven’t caught up with those economic realities. The economy certainly doesn’t demand a bachelor’s degree for everybody but it often requires more than just a high school diploma. If our politics matched our economy, we’d be paying for a K-14 education but we don’t. We only pay for K-12, which leaves many people short. That’s why nationwide we see calls to make college tuition free – maybe not all four years of college, but at least community college.

The website Best Colleges says 31 states now have some form of a free community college program, although the details vary widely. Most have a long list of restrictions. Virginia’s listed as one of those 31 states on the basis of the “G3” program that Gov. Ralph Northam instituted to provide free tuition for students in certain high-demand fields – and which Gov. Glenn Youngkin now wants to expand. These are generally those last-dollar aid programs I described above, so it’s not quite like a high school where you just show up and take your seat in homeroom (more or less).

Anyway, the point is there’s a nationwide push to make community college free somehow – even if it does require filling out the dreaded FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), which was apparently created by the same demented minds who designed the federal tax code.

On the plus side, we’re seeing communities in our part of the state embrace these programs. The state system says there’s no official accounting of who has promise programs and who doesn’t, but a spokesman directed me to the website College Promise, which purports to list all the programs in the country. It shows that in Virginia they’re all in the western part of the state, with the exception of one at the University of Richmond. This list is also incomplete because it doesn’t show Southside Community College, so we have no way of knowing who else has been left off. In any case, the bottom line is the same: Some of the most conservative parts of the state are the ones at the forefront of providing some version of free college tuition. Who would have ever guessed that?

Now for the minus side, at least how I see it: We have some of the poorest localities in Virginia helping underwrite the state community college system. Emporia has the lowest median household income of any locality in the state – $27,063 – yet it’s paying for scholarships at Southside Community College. Norton has the second lowest median household income – $29,000 – but it’s being asked to do the same at Mountain Empire. Of the 10 poorest localities in the state, four are already paying, two others are being asked to and two more have private foundations footing the bill. In the 10 most affluent localities, it doesn’t appear that any of them are helping pay for their students to go to community college. This seems backwards.

I admire Emporia and these other localities for digging into their pockets to make this happen. This seems a wise, strategic investment in a community’s most precious asset – its people. This is economic development in a modern form, a way to develop a skilled workforce. I hope all these localities continue to support these programs. However, I must question a system that makes this necessary. Virginia is the 10th most affluent state in the country, as measured by median household income. The state’s coffers in Richmond seem to be overflowing. So why does Virginia have a system where the poorest localities in the state are the ones helping pay for community college tuition?

It looks to me as if Virginia is getting something of a free ride – the benefits of a community college system without having to pay much for it. In an earlier column, I pointed to studies that show Virginia a) funds higher education at a lower level than all but 12 other states and b) spends far less on community college students than it does on students at four-year schools, even though some community college programs are more expensive to operate. (This is somewhat snarky, but compare the price of a welding machine with a philosophy textbook.)

Today I call attention to how some of the poorest localities in the state are helping foot the bill. Is this a classic case of bootstrapping? Or is it a case of an affluent state taking advantage of its most desperate localities as they are forced to fend for themselves?

I floated this past Amy Greear, the vice president for institutional advancement at Mountain Empire. She offered a quite different interpretation. Perhaps these localities are actually leading the way, she said. She points out that Tennessee now has a statewide promise program because the governor at the time – Republican Bill Haslam – saw how well the local program was working in Sullivan County and expanded it. That raises this intriguing question: Will anyone in Richmond take note of what’s happening from Emporia to Buchanan County (and potentially to Lee County) and suggest this be a Virginia-wide initiative?

There’s another thing to keep in mind here: Most of these promise programs are for students coming right out of high school and going to community college. That’s not how the real world works, though. At Mountain Empire, for instance, only about 25% to 30% of students are right out of high school. The rest are older – so those students are often out of luck.

Some of the state’s poorest localities have, indeed, shown the way by helping pay for their high school graduates to go to community college. If Richmond wants to follow, it could pony up the rest.

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at