TORRINGTON – Increasing the percentage of Wyomingites taking advantage of educational opportunities after high school was the topic of discussion at a state-wide town hall Thursday, Nov. 29.
The discussion was hosted at the state’s community colleges and at the University of Wyoming under the auspices of the Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming, or ENDOW. As part of ENDOW, Gov. Matt Mead signed a pair of executive orders, mandating educational attainment goals for the state and establishing an educational attainment task force to identify methods of attaining those goals.
Mead created the ENDOW initiative “for a long-term strategy to diversify the Wyoming economy,” Dr. Lesley Travers, president of Eastern Wyoming College, said in her opening remarks. That diversification requires “a strong foundation in education, particularly post-secondary education.”
Mead’s goals are to ensure 67 percent of the state’s population had some form of post-secondary certification or degree by 2025, raising the bar further, to 82 percent, by the year 2045, he said in a prerecorded message played at the listening session around the state. Increased and diversified educational achievement are the best way to counteract the vagaries of the “boom-and-bust cycle” which dominates the state’s economy, he said.
“Those are high goals, but they’re necessary if we want to provide great education in our state,” Mead said. “We have to raise the education level in the state.”
The town hall listening sessions were hosted across the state by the Educational Attainment Executive Council, formed by the second of Mead’s executive orders earlier this year, charged with making those goals a reality. Wally Wolski, Goshen County commissioner and a member of the ENDOW executive council, co-hosted the listening session locally.
“This is the first step in a state-wide discussion,” Wolski said. “Our purpose tonight is to lay out some things, but our real purpose is to listen, to get your input moving forward.”
One of the greatest challenges the state will face moving forward is in its workforce availability, said Barb Marquer, standards supervisor at the Wyoming Department of Education and co-facilitator of the listening session. At 60 percent, Wyoming ranked 39th in out-migration of its young people, adults younger than 25.
Combined with projections that 65 percent of jobs by the year 2020 in Wyoming will require some form of post-secondary education, the state may not fare well in terms of the so-called, “new economy,” she said.
“For Wyoming to be more competitive, the state must produce an educated workforce,” Marquer said.
The listening sessions focused on four primary points: Creating a stronger college-going culture in the state; why is Wyoming struggling with reaching the attainment goals; possible solutions to create that college-going culture, and; ideas to attain those goals as part of five-year and 10-year plans.
“One huge thing stopping us from doing things is an adult mindset – the focus has to be on the students,” said Jean Chrostoski, superintendent of Goshen County School District No. 1. “We have to get beyond (the mindset that) every child wants or needs to go to college.”
Many at the local session agreed, noting post-secondary education is not limited to a four-year degree. Two-year associate’s degrees and industry certifications – such as those offered at EWC and the state’s other community colleges – are often more attractive to students considering their future after high school.
The focus of the educational attainment goals can’t be only on new high school graduates however, it was noted. Even if every high school graduate went on to some type of post-secondary certification or degree-seeking program, it would be insufficient to reach even the 67 percent goal Mead targeted in his executive order.
Non-traditional, adult students seeking additional certifications or looking to change careers are another, major piece of the puzzle, it was noted. And a huge challenge for those individuals is time to get themselves into some type of training or educational program and how they’re going to pay for it.
“It’s a huge, multi-pronged issue,” said Craig Frederick of Guernsey, a member of the Wyoming Community College Commission and the ENDOW Educational Attainment Executive Council.
“I think what came out to me…there needs to be an emphasis on services and support for those in the education system,” he said. “That can mean social support, financial support, family support.”
The onus moving forward will also have to be on the colleges, EWC’s Travers said. In addition to the challenges of financing and supporting both traditional and non-traditional students through their post-secondary educations, it will fall upon the colleges to get creative, as well.
“We can’t just say we’re going to be open eight-to-five, Monday through Friday,” she said. “It’s going to take some fresh looks at what we currently do and how can we do it differently?
“We have to look at training that maybe isn’t traditional to community colleges,” Travers said. “We have to be creative as we change the educational attainment of Wyoming citizens.”