Free Tuition -- After a Drug Test

West Virginia joins other states in offering free tuition at community colleges. But the new law is unique in asking all students seeking eligibility to pass a drug test.

June 27, 2019
 
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Starting in July, students in West Virginia seeking to take advantage of the state's new tuition-free community college program will have to submit to a blanket drug test. The policy makes West Virginia's free-tuition legislation unique nationwide.

In March, the state Legislature passed West Virginia Invests -- legislation allowing students in the state to attend public colleges with qualifying certificate and associate degrees tuition-free. However, among the eligibility requirements to receive this benefit is passing a drug test, including for marijuana use, before the beginning of the semester.

John Bolt, a spokesman for the state flagship West Virginia University, said the policy won't affect admissions at the main campus -- even for students receiving need-based financial aid to attend the university. The policy will affect the university's affiliate campus at Potomac State College, which Bolt said primarily offers two-year programs.

The drug tests won't deem a student ineligible for prescription medicines, which could include medical marijuana, according to local media reports.

Mitch Carmichael, president of the West Virginia State Senate, was the architect of the legislation. Carmichael told WVNews the reasoning behind the drug testing requirement was that West Virginia Invests is meant to be a program preparing students for the workforce, where they'll likely have to take drug tests anyway.

Carmichael also said the program was meant for individuals not using drugs. Carmichael did not respond to requests for comment from Inside Higher Ed.

Eligibility requirements aren't new for state free-tuition programs.

Many states have standards related to minimum grade point average or family income to enter the program. Some states require students to pledge to remain working in their respective state after completing the program, with the hopes of supporting economic growth. However, Morley Winograd, president of the Campaign for Free College Tuition, said his organization recommends that programs should have the least rigid eligibility requirements possible.

"Our overall advice to states considering making college tuition free, which of course we're very much in favor of, is to make the program -- if you really want it to have impact -- as universal and as limited in its eligibility requirements as possible," Winograd said. "States that have done that have been able to generate much higher rates of enrollment increase, which is of course the whole idea."

Winograd said his organization advises states on the broader concept of offering free college options, and tries not to intervene heavily when the issue involves more specific state political issues -- which often arise, he said, when states debate legislation such as this.

"When you get into the politics of each state, and it really doesn't matter the political makeup, in our experience, a lot of local or at least statewide politics issues come to the forefront," Winograd said. "In the case of West Virginia, the idea for free college tuition, which was championed by State Senator Carmichael, gained overwhelming support in the legislature because of its focus as a solution to West Virginia's employment issues and having a workforce that had the skills that employers in West Virginia were saying were lacking in the workforce."

Drug testing for free college may be uncommon, but it is not uncommon for government benefits or entitlements in general. Many states have administered drug tests for programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as well as for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). However, drug testing all those applying for eligibility has been challenged frequently in the courts. In 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld a ruling that said a Florida law requiring all TANF applicants to be drug tested violated the Fourth Amendment.

In higher education specifically, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that the State Technical College of Missouri may not require all students to submit to drug testing prior to enrollment. The college, formerly Linn State Technical College, argued that the drug tests were meant to foster a drug-free environment on campus, but the court ruled the test was a search under the Fourth Amendment.

Winograd said there could be a variety of reasons why West Virginia lawmakers were particularly interested in this policy, but that one could be continued concern for drug-abuse issues in the state.

"It's not an uncommon thing to have in workplaces, but I think people are thinking about substance-abuse drugs, but in West Virginia they could've easily been thinking about opioid addiction, which is a huge problem in that state," Winograd said.

Rosye Cloud, vice president of strategy and innovation for the College Promise advocacy group, said in an email that each state must determine its own criteria for eligibility when creating programs such as this.

"We support student access and success through promoting and expanding Promise programs," Cloud said. "We understand that each state or community must determine their criteria for participation along with financial models that ensure long-term sustainability of the programs."

Students seeking eligibility for West Virginia's new program will be able to start taking drug tests as early as July.

 

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