When analyzing data about the 50 states—things like per capita income, public health, and internet access—you see states like Connecticut near the top, and, usually, West Virginia near the bottom. That’s true in higher education as well. West Virginia has the lowest percentage of residents with a bachelor’s degree (21 percent) and ranks 44th in the percentage of residents over 25 with an associate’s degree. 

To make matters worse, college enrollment in the state is plummeting. Ten years ago, 29,942 students were enrolled at the state’s flagship, West Virginia University. In fall 2021, that number had dropped by nearly 15 percent. The decline has been even more pronounced at some of the state’s smaller public schools. At Concord University, a venerable institution founded in 1872, enrollment dropped by a whopping 44 percent, from 3,095 students to 1,749. Meanwhile, the average tuition and fees in West Virginia have risen by 33 percent since 2010.

Enrollment rates are falling all over the country: Some 3 million fewer students attend college than did a mere decade ago. This national trend has hit West Virginia’s neighboring states, such as Pennsylvania, hard as well. But West Virginia’s higher education woes are more dramatic because of its demographic decline, economic stagnation, and poor outcomes in K–12 schools. 

Still, there’s one ranking in which West Virginia is consistently near the top: It is second in the nation in the percentage of its residents who serve in the federally funded national service program AmeriCorps, a point of pride among Mountaineers who tout the state’s culture of service. Plus, the federal government deploys many AmeriCorps members from elsewhere to West Virginia. Nearly half of the roughly 900 full-time AmeriCorps members serving there come from out of state. 

And it’s at the intersection of those three realities in West Virginia—population drain, low educational attainment, and high AmeriCorps presence—that state Senator Stephen Baldwin saw an opportunity.

Baldwin’s district is in Blue Ridge country in the state’s southeast and includes the famed Greenbrier resort. The area has a history of service, too. It was home to Civilian Conservation Corps camps during the Great Depression, and AmeriCorps workers rushed to the area to help clean up the “1,000-year flood” of 2016.

During that relief effort, Baldwin met Sarah Riley, the cofounder of a local AmeriCorps partner organization geared toward helping young women. The members AmeriCorps sent to the state were “literally our leaders” in the aftermath of the flood, Baldwin recalls, and Riley wondered how the state could thank them.

“She said to me one day, ‘It would be great if we could figure out a way to have the state pick up the [college tuition] tab for our community service workers,’” Baldwin told me. “We started working on it then.”

By the 2021 legislative session, Baldwin, the Senate Democratic leader, introduced a bill that would offer tuition and fee waivers for public universities in West Virginia to AmeriCorps members who had done a term of service in the state, regardless of where they come from. A year of service would mean a year of free college. Four years in AmeriCorps would be enough for a bachelor’s degree. His bill garnered eight cosponsors—two of them Republicans, hugely critical in a state with a GOP supermajority. 

Baldwin, a Presbyterian pastor, had three goals: incentivize West Virginia’s AmeriCorps members to go to a local college (thereby increasing enrollment); attract out-of-state AmeriCorps members to enroll in West Virginia public colleges (which would do the same); and hope that both kinds of students would settle in West Virginia after graduating, thereby expanding the college graduate population.

With the support of senate Republicans, Baldwin’s bill passed 32–1. But it was killed in the house by the Republican chair of the finance committee, who believed that it was too expensive. “We did see conservative opposition,” Baldwin recalled, from lawmakers who thought, “‘Oh, there you go again with the free tuition and free college for young people.’” 

Republican opposition to national service dates back to the Clinton administration, when Newt Gingrich dubbed AmeriCorps “coercive voluntarism.” But Baldwin believed that West Virginia Republicans, particularly after the 2016 flood, understood the vitality of the program, and that he could sway them on the cost issue in the next legislative session. 

That’s because the tuition waivers are what’s called a “last dollar in” funding program. West Virginia only funds the final portion of a student’s tuition costs and requires them to have sought alternative financing first. And what many Republicans didn’t fully appreciate is that AmeriCorps members bring money to the table. 

Those who have completed a year of service are eligible for the Segal Education Award, named after Eli Segal, an entrepreneur, Bill Clinton friend and supporter, and driving force behind the creation of AmeriCorps. They can use it to pay for education expenses up to the value of each fiscal year’s Pell Grant size—currently $6,495. Beyond that, the West Virginia bill reintroduced this year mandates that AmeriCorps members fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to receive the maximum amount of federal aid. Only then will the state pick up the tab for whatever’s left over. Because the bill authorizes the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission to use existing funds, rather than new legislative appropriations, to foot the bill, the legislators need not vote for more spending. 

Say a volunteer who spent a year doing community health work in West Virginia wants to go to WVU, where out-of-state tuition is $25,320. She can count on the Segal Award to bring that down to $18,825. If she comes from a median-income household, she might expect to receive $10,000 or more in financial aid from the university. If she’s from a moderate or low-income family, she’s eligible for a Pell Grant. Now, the state’s bill comes out to $8,000, if not less, and that’s if she wants to go to West Virginia’s most expensive public school. Out-of-state tuition at the state’s other public schools does not exceed $20,000, so the state might not be looking at any expense at all. 

For the in-staters, after Segal and FAFSA, it’s unlikely that there will be anything left over for the state to cover—but the bill would incentivize them to seek out Segal and fill out FAFSA. In 2019, more than 200 of West Virginia’s volunteers left the Segal Award on the table.

That, anyway, was the argument Baldwin began making to GOP state lawmakers at the beginning of this year’s legislative session. Fortunately, he had an ally in Senator Patricia Rucker, a Republican from Harpers Ferry. 

Just one of three women in the statehouse, Rucker got involved in politics as the cofounder of her local Tea Party chapter. She is a former teacher and a Venezuelan immigrant, and she and her American-born husband homeschool their five children. Elected in 2016, she led West Virginia Republicans’ successful effort to make teachers’ strikes illegal and cause for dismissal. But despite her wariness of new spending, Baldwin’s bill passed Rucker’s “fiscal conservative” smell test—no new agencies created, no more state funds appropriated.

“I just don’t even know why anyone would oppose [this bill],” she told me. “We get volunteers in our state doing service for us, and we get them to attend a local college, which benefits that local college—gives them a little bit of a break.”

When the senate coalition that worked on the first attempt came together to try again in the 2022 session, the new bill bore the name of a new lead sponsor—Republican Rucker. She told Baldwin to remove his name and that she needed to be in charge of the bill for it to pass the house, he said. 

State Republicans were familiar with the Higher Education Policy Commission’s ability to do “last dollar in” funding. In 2019, the state provided $10 million for tuition waivers for community college and associate’s degrees in high-demand fields such as health care in exchange for a promise to stay in the state for two years after graduation. Legislators saw how the program “paid for itself,” as the Republican sponsor of that bill said, given the relatively low cost after factoring in financial aid. The HEPC also has access to grant funding beyond state appropriations. 

Rucker vowed to her Republican colleagues that the bill would not add a cent to the legislature’s budget. The bill passed the West Virginia House in March, 92–0. Governor Jim Justice, a Republican, signed it on March 28, and it will go into effect in June.

In the 2021 American Rescue Plan, Democrats in Congress appropriated an additional $1 billion for AmeriCorps to use for pandemic relief. That boost fired up national service advocates in Congress who worked with climate groups to propose that the Biden administration create a Civilian Climate Corps. Modeled after the old Depression-era CCC, the new program would be housed within AmeriCorps. The Build Back Better framework contained $15.2 billion in new funding for AmeriCorps. In West Virginia, that would have meant resources for additional conservation and sustainability projects and more funding for existing groups that already utilize AmeriCorps members for activities like promoting sustainable farming. Of course, Build Back Better met its demise at the hands of the state’s most influential politician—Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, whose holdout denied his constituents its AmeriCorps expansion. If Manchin decides to reverse himself and support a sizable spending bill with Biden’s proposed expansion of national service, he could help deliver a version of one of the left’s highest policy priorities, free college, but one that might garner considerable approval with moderate and even conservative voters because it would be “free college if you serve.”

But in the absence of such federal investment, other states would do well to look to West Virginia. Baldwin’s bill is the first of its kind—though Arizona, Maryland, and Nebraska offer in-state rates to AmeriCorps volunteers who come from elsewhere, and Wisconsin has exempted the Segal Award from state income tax. California provides additional educational awards to AmeriCorps participants at 48 partner campuses. But no other state has gone so far as to waive tuition.

And while it wasn’t crafted as model legislation, the bill makes West Virginia something it’s not typically described as: a leader.

“Certainly, it is a great idea for [other] states who are looking for a very easy win-win type of bill,” Rucker said. “You’re going to have a hard time finding something better than this.”

Gabby Birenbaum

Gabby Birenbaum is digital editor at the Washington Monthly.