Lacking Final Bill, Lawmakers Hear Testimony on UVI’s Free-Tuition Policy

UVI President David Hall (File photo)
UVI President David Hall (File photo)

Without legislation to take action on, the Senate held a special session Friday, called for by. Gov. Kenneth Mapp, on the proposed Workforce Development Scholarship Program, a zero-tuition policy that would allow some 1,700 graduates of Virgin islands public, private and parochial schools to attend the University of the Virgin Islands for free.

Sen. Tregenza Roach (I-STT), whose similar legislation preempted the governor’s bill, reminded the public before the start of testimony that there was no bill in front of the lawmakers for consideration, which meant all they could do was listen to testimony in favor of the proposal without the ability to take action on it during that special session.

During special sessions, lawmakers usually have a piece of legislation in front of them to vote on, but even though the governor did submit legislation to the Senate (BR 18-1229), it was not available by Friday’s special session because of preemption terms, which dictates the Legislature would need to consider Roach’s bill before the governor’s.

Roach’s bill – Bill No. 30-0031 – was submitted during the 30th Legislature, and was most recently resubmitted to the 32nd Legislature in February last year.

The absence of a completely drafted legislation on Friday led some lawmakers to assert that the special session was a political stunt as the 2018 general election draws nearer.

“This afternoon, certainly to me, reeks nothing but politics,” said Sen. Jean Forde (D-STT). “We are called into special session to discuss a proposal that is not before us, a proposal that we know is going to be preempted at a later date.”

UVI President David Hall testified in favor of the bill on Friday, calling it “historic” for a territory that ranks behind all states in the nation in the percentage of adult population to have completed a college degree – 11.4 percent for the territory compared to a national average of about 27 percent. If approved and enacted, the Workforce Development Scholarship Program would make UVI the first of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities to offer free tuition to residents of its home state or territory, Hall noted.

“By embracing and funding this policy, the government of the Virgin Islands will be signaling its commitment to eliminating one of the greatest barriers to securing a college degree — cost,” said Hall.

The free-tuition policy, Hall said, could also curb some of the brain drain by incentivizing students to remain in, or return to, the Virgin Islands, making it easier for UVI to retain the territory’s high school graduates and increase its enrollment.

Lawmakers were careful to point out that they support the concept of tuition-free higher education in the territory, but questioned not only the timing of the special session, but some aspects of the policy’s implementation.. Roach suggested that the GPA requirement for eligibility – currently at 2.0 or higher – should not be legislated. Hall said the GPA requirement is consistent with federal guidelines for consideration for Pell grants and other programs, and provides much more leeway than a suggested 3.0 GPA requirement that would disqualify half of UVI students.

“Though some have suggested a much higher eligibility standard, like a 3.0 GPA, this bill intends to benefit all students and not just a select few,” said Hall.

Roach also advocated more flexible options for students to perform post-college work commitment in the territory as a condition of the free-tuition program, which is currently set at one year for every two years of aid. Sen. Alicia “Chucky” Hansen, meanwhile, obtained assurances from Hall that the free-tuition policy would not affect funding reserved for the territory’s valedictorians and salutatorians.

An annual appropriation of $3 million from the Internal Revenue Matching Fund would pay for the free-tuition policy, which will support some 1,700 students, according to Hall. The $3 million annual funding would supplement students’ federal scholarship awards, university scholarships, as well as local and private donations.

“However, we will need private individuals and companies to to continue to create and fund scholarships as they have done in the past so that this burden does not fall solely on the local government,” said Hall.

Hall emphasized the urgency of legislative action on the bill. The university seeks to implement the free-tuition policy by the fall 2019 semester, he said, with a Feb. 1 application deadline. High school seniors are already making decisions about where they plan to apply for college, Hall said, and the university would also need time to market and promote the policy.

Hall did recommend some modifications to the bill, including raising the income level requirement to $125,000 a year, or even higher for families of four or more. Following a suggestion by Forde’s office, Hall also suggested including a provision that would allow the university’s Board of Trustees to develop future regulations and procedures as long as they are consistent with the final approved legislation.

No action was taken during Friday’s special session. The Workforce Development Scholarship Program is slated to go into review by a joint committee – the Senate Finance Committee and and Education, Youth and Recreation Committee – at a later date.