Education bills target virtual learning, student debt, loopholes in Virginia's financial aid system

Travis Fain
Contact Reportertfain@dailypress.com

The McAuliffe administration rolled out a package of higher education bills Wednesday, including one to lift a partial state embargo on financial aid to non-traditional students.

Other bills would require all school divisions to offer virtual classes, open a new flow of financial aid to foster children seeking workforce credentials instead of college degrees and establish new licensing requirements for the student loan industry.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe's proposals would tinker with the Virginia Guaranteed Assistance Program, which is the state's largest pool of need-based financial aid for college students. Current rules require students to be classified as dependents to qualify, leaving out adults and some other non-traditional students.

It was unclear Wednesday why the current rule exists. Policy advisers working on the legislation said they did not know.

McAuliffe's legislation would also retool a program geared specifically toward foster children, allowing Foster Care Tuition Grants to cover more community college programs.

The goal is to move these young people more quickly into good-paying jobs, according to Glenn DuBois, chancellor of the state's community college system. The change will build on the state's Great Expectations program, which was started in 2008 and focuses on helping foster youth finish high school and get a community college education.

DuBois said the program started after officials saw national statistics that showed 2 percent of foster youth get a college degree. He said the state needs to emphasize shorter programs — certifications that take several months or a year to finish — but the state's grant program is geared toward more traditional college degrees.

McAuliffe also wants to require school divisions to provide free full-time online learning programs to students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Many systems already offer virtual learning, and the state began a pilot program in 2015 to test fully virtual high school, but the governor's bill would require expansions.

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who rolled these proposals out Wednesday with a news conference at the Capitol, said new virtual programs should help students in rural areas where there isn't enough demand for certain courses, such as advanced placement classes. Northam is running for governor in 2017.

McAuliffe vetoed a virtual learning bill last year, and this year's legislation grew from talks that followed. Del. Dickie Bell, whose legislation would have created a single virtual school program pulling students and funding from divisions all over the state, said he prefers his proposal and that he'll file it again this year as a competing measure.

"While I appreciate the Governor's renewed interest in virtual learning, I believe that this legislation takes the wrong approach," Bell, R-Staunton, said in a statement. "By keeping virtual education in local school divisions we would create artificial barriers and limit rather than increase a parent's choice."

McAuliffe said in his veto last year that Bell's bill might not be constitutional because it sapped power from local school boards.

The governor also will revive a package of student loan bills that were debated, but faded without passing, during last year's session. He would require all lenders and loan servicers to be licensed by the state and establish a new ombudsman to help students understand the loan industry.

The administration is also backing legislation meant to cut student debt by encouraging students to graduate college within four years.

Fain can be reached by phone at 757-525-1759.

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