Higher education in Virginia just got better in a big way, though it may have escaped some people’s notice.
Legislation creating a tuition-free program in the state’s community colleges became law on Monday. Known as G3, for “Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back,” it will benefit students pursuing degrees or workforce certifications in high-demand fields prized by businesses that can’t find enough qualified job-seekers.
G3 is an economic game-changer that offers new hope for thousands, said Dr. Janet Gullickson, president of Germanna Community College.
Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature initiative will slim the crushing debt faced by college students, Gullickson told the Culpeper Star-Exponent.
Using a stackable approach developed by the Virginia Community College System, G3 gives students an array of possibilities for employment, career advancement and a better education, Gullickson said in an interview.
“People need jobs right away,” she said. “G3 is designed for people who want to work and continue school at the same time. Many of our students are working 50 to 60 hours a week. We know that.”
With G3, community college students can work, gain a certification that will help them qualify for a specialized job or get a promotion, and gain credit toward their two-year associate’s degree, with the option of transferring to one of Virginia’s four-year colleges and universities. Students might keep working, then return for an additional certification or a whole degree, Gullickson said.
G3 will provide tuition, fees and books and pay other expenses for eligible low- and middle-income students in fields such as health care, information technology and computer science, manufacturing and skilled trades, public safety, and early childhood education.
The program is not just for low-income individuals, the neediest, Gullickson said. A family of four with a yearly income of $100,000 would qualify, she said. G3 will help people with income up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level, Gullickson said. The program makes up the difference between what federal or state financial aid pays for tuition, fees and books.
Students who qualify for federal Pell grants and are enrolled full time can also receive grants of up to $900 per semester and $450 in the summer to help pay for food, transportation and child care.
By making high-demand careers more accessible for struggling people, G3 aims to address two pressing, connected needs, Gullickson said. First, it will help people whose careers have been interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Second, it will expedite developing workers’ talent, the No. 1 need expressed by Virginia businesses.
“We know that many employers need skilled workers and workers need skills. G3 provides a path forward to living-wage, family-supporting careers needed in our region right now,” the college president said. “At Germanna, G3 education includes health care, information technology, cybersecurity, engineering technology, manufacturing and skilled trades, police training and early childhood education, among others. And we are developing new programs all the time.”
America’s traditional emphasis on encouraging students to earn four-year college degrees “has really left our country in a bit of a bind in having enough skilled workers,” Gullickson said. “European countries still have robust apprenticeship programs. And China is eating our lunch in many areas.”
Taking a “very flexible approach,” G3 is not just for credit-based education, she noted.
Students can earn a workforce credential that will count toward a degree. Their past experience can help them qualify for certification.
“In Virginia, this is absolutely the best time to go to college,” she said.
The state’s community colleges can tap a variety of funds to help students with tuition and their basic needs, accessing money provided by community donors, Virginia, and federal CARES Act, COVID relief and economic stimulus programs, she said.
In her 40-plus years in education in various states, Gullickson said she has never seen students’ needs be so great. Last week, Germanna gave away 3,000 pounds of food, she said.
“We’ve never had as many students in need of food, housing, health care or gasoline,” Gullickson said of Germanna. “So many of our students worked in low-income jobs that have disappeared because of COVID.”
Since the novel coronavirus struck early last year, more than 1.1 million Virginians have filed for unemployment benefits. Many of their jobs may be slow to return, if they do.
“Germanna has always made a difference for people who’ve been laid off or are in dead-end jobs,” college spokesman Michael Zitz said Saturday. “But this puts what we do on steroids, at a very critical time.
“G3 can help our area and our state come back strong from the economic effects of the pandemic, training people for good jobs quickly for free, and giving a hand up to people who’ve lost jobs through no fault of their own,” he said. “It also helps local businesses by preparing local people to fill skills-gap jobs.”
The G3 program has been in the works for years. Community college officials worked diligently on it and thought it would start in late 2019 or early 2020.
Then the pandemic struck.
“We had to wait to survive COVID, get the state back in good health, and be ready to go on the curriculum,” Gullickson said.
When the state’s community colleges announced COVID-relief grant opportunities last November, more than 40,000 Virginians sought education and training from them.
The impetus for the G3 program came from the governor, Gullickson said.
“To be frank, this is Gov. Northam’s baby. G3 came from his vision,” she said. “He always had this dream—providing the ability to help students with tuition and gain workforce skills.”
In 2018, to prepare for the program, Northam announced a collaborative effort to transform the community colleges’ workforce programs.
On Monday, Northam created the program in a bill-signing ceremony at the Alexandria campus of Northern Virginia Community College. Earlier, with broad bipartisan support, the Virginia Senate and House had passed the bills to establish and fund the G3 program, allocating $36 million for it.
To apply for G3 aid, students can visit www.germanna.edu and click on “G3.”
Initial eligibility for the G3 program is determined when a student applies for federal and state student financial aid, including the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
Through June 30, to schedule a virtual, one-on-one meeting with an advisor, Virginia students and families can go to virginiacan.org/fafsa.
With 7,263 credit-taking transfer students, Germanna is now the state’s fifth-largest community college—behind the Northern Virginia, Tidewater, Reynolds and John Tyler campuses. Germanna also educates about 5,000 non-credit workforce training students.
Culpeper County provides 8.5 percent of Germanna’s for-credit student enrollment.
In recent years, Germanna has been Culpeper County residents’ preferred college for enrollment, educating more than 1,000 students from Culpeper annually.
The college serves Culpeper, Orange, Madison, Stafford, Spotsylvania, Caroline and King George counties and the city of Fredericksburg.