SHERIDAN — A bill likely to soon become law could make a significant impact on higher education in Wyoming.
Senate File 111 allows community colleges across the state to offer Bachelor of Applied Science degrees, ideally increasing the number of residents with four-year degrees. The change would most likely impact programs like industrial technology, diesel technology and construction technology.
During a March 8 Northern Wyoming Community College District board work session, NWCCD President Paul Young said the change is designed to mainly help people with Associate of Applied Science degrees who want to advance in their careers.
“What about 10 years later when you’re ready to move up in the firm?” Young said. “… With this authorization, we can develop a program to bring those people back in, give them credit for those two years, then start them on third level and fourth level management classes.”
A formal signing from Gov. Mark Gordon has been requested for the bill this Friday. Gordon can either sign, veto or take no action. If he signs or takes no action, the bill will become law.
If the bill is approved, Wyoming would join community colleges in 23 other states that offer some form of a bachelor’s degree. The Equality State ranks 48th in the country in baccalaureate degrees per 1,000 people and third in associate degrees per 1,000 people.
Twenty-four of 30 state senators approved the bill and 51 of 60 state representatives approved it last month during the legislative session. Several community colleges voiced support for the proposal as well. The University of Wyoming spoke against the bill, saying the proposal could disrupt the flow of students from community colleges and create unnecessary overlap in some programs.
The financial impact of the bill is unknown, causing some concern among legislators.
Rep. Mark Kinner, R-Sheridan, voted in favor of the bill because he supported the idea. However, he was hesitant to approve SF 111 without much clarity regarding the fiscal ramifications.
“I just think at a time when we still haven’t solved the educational funding issues in Wyoming, and we still have somewhere between $250 and $350 million coming up in the next biennium of a shortfall on the education side, we still have some hard decisions to make,” Kinner said.
If the state needs to provide additional funding, it wouldn’t be finalized until next year’s legislative session.
Kinner thinks the proposal will likely result in an increase in costs to hire additional instructors.
“I find it hard to believe that they could go through all the requirements of getting approval for things and come up with advanced degrees without any additional funds,” Kinner said.
However, Young said the college district likely wouldn’t hire additional instructors initially because it has enough teachers qualified to teach advanced courses. If NWCCD needs more instructors, Young said it would contract adjunct faculty through the University of Wyoming or Black Hills State University.
Young said he could understand the concerns expressed by UW. However, he believes the bill won’t result in competition between the university and community colleges. Rather, he thinks it will encourage more people to further their education who otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity.
“Our position is that this isn’t to take anything away from [UW], it’s just to do additional (programs),” Young said. “By doing it here in the community with people who are here in the community, I think we’re going to see a better response, but we’re going to find out. The whole thing about cost is if people don’t show up, there’s no cost. If a lot of people show up, that’s a good problem to have. That means we’re going to have a more educated workforce.”
Assuming the bill passes Gordon’s desk, Chad Baldwin, University of Wyoming director of institutional communications, said UW plans to work with the community colleges to the best of the university’s capabilities. Baldwin also said it is uncertain if the university would offer additional B.A.S. degrees as a result.
If the bill passes, Young said NWCCD could have students pursuing a bachelor’s degree as early as January 2020. Before making decisions, though, Young said NWCCD will talk with students and local employers to gauge the level of interest and determine in what areas those interests lie. After determining which programs to begin, the college must design curriculum, find instructors and gain approval from the board of trustees, WCCC, and college accreditors.
Young added that the initial number of students would likely be small and involve people attending college in Sheridan, Gillette and Buffalo.
“I don’t think it’s going to take off all that fast, but we’ll see,” Young said.
There is a good chance the classes would utilize video conferencing during lectures if students are in multiple locations. For example, a course in engineering management might have one instructor rotate each week between Sheridan, Buffalo and Gillette and have some students in-person and others on video.
Assuming it passes, the bill will take some time to implement, but it could help improve education levels around the state.