By Callie Hietala
Every current K-12 student in Martinsville and Henry County will have the opportunity to attend Patrick & Henry Community College (P&HCC) for free, thanks to a $10.3 million, 13-year grant from the Harvest Foundation.
The Student Excellence in Education (SEED) Fund is the “largest investment in the history of Patrick & Henry Community College,” said Greg Hodges, president of P&HCC. “It is an investment in the power of hope for a better future for our community. Starting today, the question of ‘can I afford to go to college’ will never again be asked by a school-age student in Martinsville-Henry County. As of this moment, the financial barrier of attending college has been removed for an entire generation.”
Harvest Foundation President Kate Keller added that the program is “a life-changing opportunity for today’s high school graduates.”
The SEED fund, initially established in 2017 as a three-year pilot program, has already seen positive results. “The first two cohorts of SEED students are completing college at a rate that is double the national average for community college students,” said Hodges. SEED students averaged a 65 percent completion rate, compared to 34 percent for other P&HCC students and 33 percent statewide.
Keller said that the 2017 funding helped prove that “for students, the desire to attend college is there, they just need the reassurance that it is possible and within their reach.”
“In the last four years,” Hodges said, “we’ve had over 800 students in the SEED program.” That averages to about 200 students per semester who take advantage of the funding. “We have the highest penetration rate of any community college in Virginia,” he said, explaining that, while other institutions may have larger numbers of students, P&HCC has the highest percentage of students enrolled in its college programs, whether through dual enrollment or through SEED.
Bill Kirby, chairman of the Harvest Foundation Board, said that, growing up in his household, he didn’t even realize that going to college was not an option. A significant number of children in the community do not have that same attitude, he said.
“They are told, or they infer from those around them, that college is not an option. We want those experiences to change,” he said.
Dr. Zebedee Talley, superintendent of Martinsville City Public Schools, the SEED program will put “all of our young people on an equal playing field… Education has always been the great equalizer and this program gives all young people in Martinsville and Henry County the opportunity to be educated” and improve their families’ status.
“When you look back at patterns, you’ll find that those students who tend to become better educated enhance the quality of life overall for their families,” he added.
Not only will the program help its students improve their quality of life later, but it is already incentivizing students to perform better in school, according to Assistant Superintendent of Instruction for Martinsville City Public Schools Angilee Downing.
“We have the highest on-time graduation rate in our region,” she said. A big factor in that statistic is students knowing they have an opportunity provided by the SEED program and a goal to work towards, which greatly impacts students’ mindset about graduation. “My sixth graders know today that they can go to college, that it’s there for them.”
Additionally, Hodges said the minimum grade point average (GPA) requirement for students to qualify for the funding “becomes an absolute incentive” for improved academic performance in the classroom. “Not a semester goes by that we don’t have phone calls from parents, grandparents, and students wanting to know what they have to earn in a given semester to get that 2.5 GPA” to qualify for the funding.
SEED has already played a role in boosting the economy of the Martinsville-Henry County community. “There’s not an economic development pitch that doesn’t include the SEED program,” Hodges said. Many of the pitches include a tour of the college’s Manufacturing, Engineering & Technology (MET) Complex. During those tours, “we always include SEED,” Hodges said.
Executives at the German sink manufacturing company SCHOCK GmbH, which announced that it was investing $85 million and creating 355 new jobs in the area to open its first U.S manufacturing operation at the Patriot Centre in Martinsville, were told about the program and the opportunities it could provide for the children of families they employed.
“By their own admission, that was incredibly attractive,” Hodges said.
Mark Heath, president and CEO of the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. (EDC), echoed those sentiments.
“We’ve been promoting the SEED program for several years now,” he said. “It has been and will continue to be an important part of the overall training package,” particularly as employers are competing for a dwindling labor pool. He added that the program could be a boon to the EDC’s Martinsville Made Initiative, which entices people to move to the area for work.
“If you tell someone, ‘if you move here and your kids go to school here, they can get two free years of community college,’ that’s a powerful benefit,” he said.
The SEED Fund announcement was made on the campus of P&HCC with city, county, and school officials attending. Kindergarten students from the Carlisle School, Martinsville, and Henry County, who will now be able to benefit from the funding, watched the announcement via Zoom, all wearing SEED T-shirts.
To qualify for the SEED Fund, a high school graduate must have a minimum grade point average (GPA) of 2.5, be a resident of Martinsville-Henry County and have in-state residency status at the time of the award. SEED students must file a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) each year, and complete eight hours of community service before July 31 for each year of participation.
Students are eligible immediately following graduation from high school, completing a GED program (high-school age population only), or a homeschool program. Once an application to the fall semester at P&HCC is completed, an application to the SEED Fund must be completed on time.
“To me, hope means giving our children a brighter tomorrow,” Kirby said. “SEED gives our children hope. They will know that the future they want is possible and attainable and they will know that college is 100 percent an option for them.”
To find out more about the SEED Fund, visit www.patrickhenry.edu/seed.