SHERIDAN — A bill that would create an adult-focused scholarship financial aid program called Wyoming Works! is making its way through the Legislature, with strong support from the Sheridan County delegation.
Senate File 122, the Wyoming Works! bill, if passed, will allow for a $10,000,000 allocation from the state’s general fund to the Wyoming Community College Commission for the Wyoming Works! program. It has passed the Senate and has been received for introduction in the House.
“We support SF122 because it helps the community colleges answer the call of their local communities, and that’s why the community colleges exist,” said Erin Taylor, director of the Wyoming Association of Community College Trustees.
Wyoming Works! could serve as an important pathway for students who have previously been unable to access grant or loan money for tuition and books, because their chosen field of study did not fit into a traditional college model or because they did not meet the requirements to receive Hathaway Scholarship funding, Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, said.
In 2018, Gov. Matt Mead set an attainment goal for Wyoming that more of the state’s adult population needs to have some kind of valuable credential beyond high school, said Dr. Paul Young, president of the Northern Wyoming Community College District.
That does not mean these students need a baccalaureate degree, he continued.
“Maybe it is an associate degree, maybe it is a drilling certificate or an industry-recognized certification,” Young explained.
The Wyoming Works! builds capacity for standing up those programs at Wyoming’s community colleges. Funding could be used to start certificate programs at the community college level, hire instructors and purchase equipment. It could be used to bolster programs where the need is greater than the current resources.
Another feature of the Wyoming Works! legislation would be to provide funding for adults who aren’t otherwise eligible for the Hathaway scholarship program.
“If you are a high school student in good standing, there are all kinds of great resources for you, but if you are somebody who has been out of school for a while, or you are a single parent and you are working at a minimum-wage job, it is very hard to find the resources to take the time out to get the training to get a higher wage job,” Young said.
Even in Sheridan County, employers see the effects of this.
“If you’re trying to find someone to come work for you and you are an electrician or a plumber, you have to wait weeks and weeks and weeks to find someone,” Young said. “We need fabricators and machinists and welders to go to work for all these employers we are attracting to Sheridan, and this is true not just in Sheridan but in Casper and Cheyenne and all across our state.”
Sheridan College has been involved in the Wyoming Works! discussions from the very beginning.
“This meets a need that we’ve pointed out. We said, ‘Hey, if we had some resources, we could tool up in these areas to provide training,’” Young said. “We know that for students, cost is a barrier, working in the minimum wage economy.”
Wyoming community colleges graduate approximately 1,000 people each year with high school completion certificates, and about 100 come from the Northern Wyoming Community College District’s Sheridan and Gillette campuses.
“Those students are about 50 percent unemployed, because you can’t be employed without a high school diploma. That is just getting those people on the first rung of the ladder,” Young said. “We know that these people have proven their competency on the high school equivalency programs, so if we could have them another six or eight weeks, they could gain the skills to be employed in a technical job and really make some money.”
In its 2019 legislative priorities report, the WACCT said that it supports the creation of an adult-focused scholarship/financial aid program to help meet the state’s higher education attainment goals.
“Wyoming must re-engage working adults already committed to living here and encourage them to earn a post-secondary credential,” the WACCT stated.
According to the Lumina Foundation, Wyoming has 87,034 working-aged adults with just a high school diploma and 56,149 with some college, but no credential.
It is difficult for working adults to leave the labor force to pursue higher education because of life commitments and financial obligations, according to the WACCT. With Hathaway scholarships focused on traditional-age students, the addition of an adult-focused scholarship program is a natural counterpart to serve all Wyomingites’ pursuit of higher education.
This is something Sheridan’s state delegation understands.
“Going back to school as a working adult requires sacrifice and commitment,” Kinskey said. “Funding from a program like Wyoming Works! does mean, however, that the state is willing to help those with the drive to follow through.”
The WACCT has compiled a list of sample programs that could be a part of the Wyoming Works! course offerings. These include cybersecurity at Casper College, HVAC-R at Laramie County Community College and machine tool technology at NWCCD.
“We asked each college to give us an example for a program that would feed regional workforce needs/demand in their service territories,” Taylor said. “They are purely for example, but are a good illustration of the regional needs across the state and the kinds of programs the colleges would want to stand up to meet the needs of industry.”
Young said that if passed, the legislation would help colleges find out which programs to shore up in the coming years based on regional and economic need.
“It could be in computer science, it could be in health care, it could be diesel mechanics,” Young said. “There are these other areas that we are still hearing from employers that we are not addressing. This would give us the resources to do so.”
The Senate Appropriations Committee voted in favor of SF122 with a vote of 5-0 and the Senate as a whole advanced the bill with 28 votes for it and two excused. No votes were cast against the bill, which was received for introduction in the House of Representatives Tuesday.