A group of kindergartners in Virginia recently brought home good news to their parents: their college tuition, textbooks and fees would be paid for when they graduated from high school. In fact, all current K-12 students in Martinsville and Henry County have a guarantee of two-and-a-half years of tuition-free education at Patrick & Henry Community College (P&HCC).
That’s thanks to a $10.3 million investment in the SEED Fund at P&HCC.
It is a game-changer not only for those students and their families but for the entire community.
From the ground up
P&HCC’s service area was once the furniture capital of the world. That changed in the late 1990s and early 2000s when there were massive factory closures in the region – and a mass exodus of the population. The rural area became the unemployment capital of Virginia.
“As devastating as the job loss was, equally so was population migration,” said P&HCC President Greg Hodges, who is “a product of this community” and attended P&HCC as a student about 25 years ago. “We had to redefine ourselves and recreate ourselves from the ground up.”
But to affect real change, P&HCC needed a strong partner in the community. Enter the Harvest Foundation.
The foundation was established in 2002 from the sale of Memorial Hospital. Since its creation, the organization has committed to enhancing opportunities and quality of life for all citizens of Martinsville and Henry County.
The foundation looks to “provide that window of hope and opportunity for young people,” said DeWitt House, senior program officer at Harvest.
A partnership with P&HCC seemed a natural fit. Conversations between the two started about five years ago and the discussions turned to the idea of tuition-free community college – something that could be tied to the economic enhancement of the community.
P&HCC administrators examined the Tennessee Promise model and had conversations with college presidents in Tennessee about how the program worked. That research was brought to Harvest.
“Harvest is very much a data-driven organization. They want a good return on their investment,” says Hodges, who was vice president of academics and student success services at the time.
It’s an investment
Harvest agreed to fund a three-year pilot program, which grew to a four-year program, with a $3.1 million investment allowing P&HCC to establish the SEED Fund. It’s a last-dollar program that covers recent high school graduates’ tuition, fees and textbooks at P&HCC for two and a half years.
But Hodges and House hesitate to use the word “free.”
“It’s not ‘free’ because someone is paying for it,” Hodges says.
“There’s a lot of resources that go into the SEED program,” House says. “We look at that as an investment in the college and our youth.”
And though SEED students may not have to pay to attend P&HCC, they do have to work to qualify for the program by graduating high school with a minimum cumulative GPA of 2.5 and maintaining a 2.0 GPA while at P&HCC. They also have to enroll in 15 credits each semester and complete eight hours of community service each year. (Some of those requirements were relaxed during the pandemic.)
Coaching for success
Students aren’t on their own to meet the program’s requirements or when it comes to enrolling at P&HCC. The college has coaches in the high school to promote the program and work with students and their families to ensure GPA requirements are met, the FAFSA is completed and that the path is clear for college.
“They are part of the secret sauce that makes this happen,” Hodges says. “Especially during Covid, we could not have engaged students without them. They’re a lifeline.”
He adds that the coaches keep students “in their palm until the first day of classes” at P&HCC.
Once SEED students arrive at the college, they have a full array of wraparound services to help them succeed, all in one location on campus. They meet with a SEED coach who keeps them on track. Data are run throughout the semester to track students’ progress, and coaches intervene if SEED students are not enrolled in enough credits or they’re not making academic progress.
“It’s a high-touch program,” Hodges says. “It’s more than just free tuition, textbooks and fees.”
And it’s working.
The first two cohorts of SEED students have a 65% completion rate, says Hodges, earning certificates, degrees and industry-recognized credentials. That’s nearly double the national average community college completion rate. Not only that, but P&HCC students are taking the highest number of credits of any of the 23 community colleges in Virginia.
“The data tells the story of the efficacy of the program. The data really sells it,” Hodges says.
That data helped when it came time to renew the Harvest Foundation grant, which has been extended for 13 years and now includes a built-in evaluator who provides detailed reports.
“We put that stake in the ground that we’re committed to this,” House says.
An announcement of SEED 2.0 was made on September 30. Stakeholders, including Hodges and House, helped plant a tree, which represents a promise to an entire generation in the community.
A renewed interest from businesses
While SEED is helping to change the lives of students, it’s also assisting in attracting businesses to the community.
Manufacturer Crown Holdings announced in January it will build a new beverage can manufacturing facility in Henry County, which will create 126 new jobs with wages around $23 an hour, Hodges says. In September, German company SHOCK announced it will establish its first U.S. operation in Henry County, bringing more than 350 jobs to the community.
“SEED’s part of this package,” Hodges says. “It enhances the attractiveness of this community.”
In years past, “there were national publications that talked about how far Martinsville region fell,” Hodges says. “I hope to get them back to see how far we’ve come.”
SEED isn’t the only financial support for P&HCC students. Virginia’s G3 program started this semester. It provides tuition assistance for students studying in specific in-demand fields, such as healthcare and early childhood education.
According to Hodges, 22% of SEED students are eligible for the G3 program.
“That just extends the life of SEED dollars,” he says.
And there’s a possibility of nationwide free community college if Congress passes the Build Back Better Act.
If that becomes a reality, “We’ll just add it as another tool in our toolkit,” Hodges says. “It will supplement what we already have.”