In West Virginia, free college — after students pass a drug test

By Aimee Picchi

/ MoneyWatch

Can America's student debt be erased?

West Virginia has a deal for students who want to better themselves with a college degree: Starting July 1, you can enroll in one of the state's local community colleges — and the state will pay for your tuition to earn an associate's degree or training certificate. But here's the catch: The students must first pass a drug test before each semester.

West Virginia isn't alone in rolling out free tuition programs, a trend that has spread to 19 U.S. states during the past five years, according to a June report from progressive think tank Century Foundation. But in addition to some typical requirements, such as achieving a certain GPA, the Appalachian state is alone in requiring its students to also pass a drug test to qualify for free tuition, according to education publication Inside Higher Education.

West Virginia's free tuition program — and its unusual hitch — reflect two social trends that policymakers say are taking a toll on the economy. First, the rising cost of a college degree has burdened more than 40 million Americans with $1.6 trillion in student debt, hobbling their chances to save to buy a home or car. Second, the opioid crisis, which has sapped the U.S. economy of $1 trillion from 2001 to 2017, has hit West Virginia especially hard.

Clinging to coal: West Virginia's fight over green jobs

As in other states, West Virginia's lawmakers designed the free tuition program to give their local economy a boost. It's especially needed in the tiny landlocked state, where poverty has surged since Donald Trump's 2016 election and only one of five prime-age workers as a college degree, compared with one in three nationally.

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Providing West Virginia's residents with free tuition "will not only improve the general well-being of its citizens, but greatly enhance the economic prosperity of the state," according to the new law. It also suggests that giving more West Virginians access to a college degree could help stave off the opioid epidemic.

"West Virginia is currently facing a devastating drug epidemic, and the hope that comes with increased access to career education and higher quality employment opportunities is an indispensable tool against the spread of drug addiction," it noted.

Testing for THC and opiates

The law doesn't specify which drugs will be screened, but a consultant who worked on the program told West Virginia's Herald-Dispatch newspaper that students will be tested for THC, marijuana's active ingredient, as well as opiates such as oxycodone and hydrocodone and other drugs. Students with prescriptions, including for medical marijuana, will be exempted, according to the report.

One lawmaker told the publication that the drug testing will prepare students for jobs after graduation, when many will be required to be tested. It's unclear how many students might be affected.

How many qualify?

Free tuition programs have spread at an "astonishing" rate during the past five years, according to Century Foundation. But because of their requirements, including earning above a certain GPA or income limits, as few as 5% of students may qualify in some states, its report noted.

Bernie Sanders proposes eliminating all student debt

At the same time, the debate about student debt and the cost of a college degree is taking center stage in the 2020 presidential campaign. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have rolled out plans to enact new taxes to wipe out the nation's college debt and provide free college tuition.

The argument for providing free tuition to college students is often posed as an economic good: By providing no-cost college degrees to America's youth, the economy will reap the rewards as graduates juice up their earnings potential while sidestepping college debt.

In Wednesday's debate between Democratic presidential hopefuls, Warren cited her own experience enrolling in college. The cost, she said, was $50 a semester. Today, the average annual tuition and fees at an in-state public college is more than $25,000.

First published on June 28, 2019 / 12:25 PM

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