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COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – An all-encompassing education reform bill met the ink of Gov. Mike DeWine’s pen last week.

From $2,000 grants to students who re-enroll in college after “stopping out” to promoting public universities to partner with community colleges, Senate Bill 135 was enacted into law on April 21, paving the way toward making higher education a reality for more students in Ohio, bill sponsor Sen. Jerry Cirino said.

“This bill is all about access and availability and affordability,” Cirino said.

SB 135 is chock-full of what the Kirtland Republican considers solutions to a dwindling number of high school graduates in Ohio and financial barriers preventing students from hitting the books.

Relative to other U.S. states, Ohio was ranked No. 45 in terms of least affordable higher education in a 2016 report by the Institute for Research on Higher Education.

And according to the Ohio Department of Education, the Buckeye State is set to lose 9% of its total 2019 high school graduates by 2030 – a concerning sign for ODE Chancellor Randy Gardner.

“Because of that fact, we won’t have the quality workforce available to us if we don’t find other ways to provide the workers to the skilled workforce of tomorrow,” Gardner said.

Second Chance grant program

Under SB 135, a grant program providing $2,000 scholarships to students who re-enroll in higher education after “stopping out,” as Cirino calls it, would become a permanent fixture throughout Ohio.

The $3 million Second Chance grant program was launched as a pilot program in November, and since its inception, about 300 students heading back to school after a hiatus for three semesters or more have received $2,000, according to Gardner. 

“We want students to be encouraged in some fashion to get into another program,” Cirino said. “Maybe go back to a community college, maybe go get an apprenticeship someplace or certificate, do something that’s going to get you into the workforce.”

With a 3-year-old at home and a mother diagnosed with polio, Deanna Ziegler was a single mom when she withdrew from classes at Ohio State’s Marion campus in 1995.

“She’s had polio all her life, and my dad was handicapped too,” Ziegler, 50, of Bucyrus, said. “So at that time, they just needed my help.”

After being out of school for 32 years, Ziegler, a medical assistant at OhioHealth, said she’s ready to go back – this time for a Licensed Practical Nurse certificate at North Central State Community College.

Ziegler, who applied for a Second Chance grant, said the $2,000 scholarship would ease the burden of the $12,000 out-of-pocket costs she would incur from tuition and textbooks.

“Financially, I think it’s a great opportunity that they’re giving people so they can pursue their dream,” she said.

Keeping costs the same for in-person and online courses

As many students transitioned from in-person to online classes as COVID-19 spread throughout Ohio, Cirino said SB 135 would also prohibit colleges from charging different rates for the two modes of instruction.

Any “special fees” charged for an online course can’t simply be an estimated price tag, Cirino said. Higher education institutions must base those fees upon the actual demonstrated costs.

“Students should be getting in person education in the first place,” Cirino said. “We’re sure not going to charge a free premium if they’re doing online courses.”

Promoting partnerships between state and community colleges 

Cirino said the bill also seeks to promote greater collaboration between state universities and two-year community colleges in Ohio.

By requiring state universities to enter into agreements with two-year colleges to establish joint course offerings and opportunities for students to be dually enrolled in two institutions, Cirino said SB 135 allows students to earn a degree at a “fraction of the cost.”

“Better utilization of community colleges in bachelor’s degree education – as called for in SB 135 – would reduce costs for students, increase the diversity of graduates, and accelerate them into in-demand jobs and successful careers,” Columbus State College president David Harrison said while testifying in support of the bill in May 2021.

While Gardner said there’s still work to be done to make college a reality for all Ohioans, SB 135 is a step in the right direction.

“The governor has said all along that what we need to be able to do is provide an opportunity for people in this state, whatever their degree pursuit is, whatever their career occupation, passion is, we should find a way to help them obtain that here in Ohio,” Gardner said.