Less than half of adults in Wyoming have completed education beyond high school, but Governor Matt Mead says for the sake of Wyoming’s economy that must change. In fact, his first executive order of 2018 called for 67 percent of Wyomingites to have advanced degrees by 2025. To address achievement gaps and to encourage underserved populations like first-generation college students and adult learners to pursue higher education, the governor's economic diversification committee ENDOW recommends the creation of a need-based state financial aid program.
Building a skilled workforce for jobs that don’t exist yet in Wyoming might sound risky. But Joe Schaffer, president of Laramie County Community College, like Governor Mead, is confident that more workers with certificates, associate’s and bachelor’s degrees will bring opportunity to the state.
“When businesses are looking at Wyoming...they want to see a population of individuals that can fill the jobs they have,” said Schaffer. “And we have examples, even in the last year, where we’ve lost major prospects, major employers because we didn’t have that ready-made population.”
Schaffer pointed to a survey showing that corporations are more interested in an educated workforce, than the tax breaks that Wyoming currently touts.
Smucker’s seriously considered Cheyenne as the location for a new food processing facility, but the company went to Longmont, Colorado instead to fill those 500 positions. They were looking for workers with certificates in Integrated Technology Systems; in other words, experience maintaining and operating complex machines.
Schaffer is also co-chair of a state task force that’s been awarded funding and consulting support from the Western Interstate Commission of Higher Education to boost educational attainment. He said one thing Wyoming has to contend with is the energy industry.
“Wyoming has one of the highest wages on average for low-skilled or semi-skilled employment,” explained Schaffer. “So if you want to make a good living without a college credential, Wyoming still continues to be one of the states where you can do that.”
But those jobs come with booms and busts. The last downturn significantly cut public funds, drove workers out of the state, and got policymakers thinking hard about how to stabilize things. Diversifying the economy has been promoted by Governor Mead as the path forward, hence the need for an educated and innovative workforce.
But how will the state go from 48 to 67 percent advanced degree attainment by 2025?
“In Wyoming, we have about 5,400 high school graduates a year. About half of them go onto college,” said Mary Aguayo. She oversees the transfer student program at the University of Wyoming and also serves on the educational attainment task force. She said encouraging high school graduates to complete an advanced degree is critical, but only part of the picture.
“When we talk about shifting the entire workforce in the state...we will never achieve the goal if we ignore the fact that Wyoming has over 80,000 working adults who have some college and no degree,” said Aguayo. “There’s an additional 40,000 adults with an associate’s and no bachelor’s degree.”
And that’s where Wyoming will get the most bang for its buck. Joe Schaffer from LCCC explained that adults—with roots in Wyoming—are more likely to stick around once they complete their degrees.
Schaffer said the next step is to: “understand what do we need to do to make it appealing for those adults to re-engage?”
He said adults—with car payments, mortgages and kids to feed—go back to school when new skills and knowledge clearly lead to jobs with higher wages, which Wyoming can’t yet guarantee.
So the task force is looking at a need-based financial aid program to encourage adults to go back to school. The state already has the Hathaway Scholarship, which encourages Wyoming high school graduates to go to UW or one of the state’s seven community colleges. But the Hathaway is merit-based and unavailable to adults.
Schaffer said the state has to make financing school easy, if it’s asking adults and their families to take a risk to help transform the state’s economy.
“And so while we are developing an economy that’s diversified and has those opportunities...we need to find ways to underwrite or mitigate those risks that adults have to take.” Schaffer added emphatically, “if we truly want them to come back to college. And the way you do that is through financial aid, financial assistance.”
Bailey Nowak is an honor roll business student at LCCC, where she’s president of the campus rotary club. She’s also owned her own lawn mowing business since she was 12 years old, and next fall she heads to the University of Wyoming to start on a bachelor’s in marketing or management.
While she’s clearly a go-getter, there wasn’t much talk about scholarships at home. Her parents weren’t familiar with the process because neither of them had gone to college. And she doesn’t remember being encouraged to apply for the Hathaway at school.
“Well for example...my brother didn’t know about the Hathaway.” She explained that astounding considering, “we’re the same age, we’re twins.”
Luckily she met the requirements to qualify, but her brother did not. And while the Hathaway Scholarship provided Bailey Nowak the financial stability to fully immerse herself in college and find her passion for business, she’s watched her brother Brandon Nowak struggle to find meaning in his work; switching from construction to car tire sales to commercial driving.
Like Bailey, her brother Brandon was also a young entrepreneur, with his own welding business in high school, and she thinks college would help him get back that creative entrepreneurial spirit.
“Go take a few classes: try welding, try business, try arts,” said Bailey.
Maybe that could lead to a job in Wyoming’s emerging aerospace industry. But Brandon said he can’t afford it, and that cobbling together federal aid and multiple scholarships feels too complicated, especially when he feels confident he’ll be able to make good money driving trucks.
“If he just had a little more financial stability to let him know the money is there,” she said then he wouldn’t feel like he couldn’t go college. “I think if there is some aid, that allows you to take a little more risk."
And that could provide the workforce for the kinds of industries Wyoming is trying to recruit; high tech robotics, carbon manufacturing, and blockchain technology.
Joe Schaffer, Mary Aguayo and the other members of the educational attainment task force are working with stakeholders to conceptualize a program that could support the thousands of students in Brandon Nowak’s position.
Wyoming is one of just a few states that doesn’t already have a need-based aid program for adults. But hustling to catch up with the rest of the nation has its benefits. The task force will be able to look at what’s worked well in other states as it crafts its plan. Legislation could go before lawmakers as soon as 2019.