SHERIDAN — A new program that officially began earlier this month could serve as a catalyst for Wyoming towns and community colleges. Wyoming Works was approved by the Wyoming Legislature this spring and went into effect July 1. The program is designed to allow more citizens to receive certifications in industries in short supply, particularly in technical fields.
The Legislature approved $5 million in funding for the next two years to help two-year colleges attract students, expand existing programs and begin new offerings. Of that total, $3 million will go toward individual student grants — essentially scholarships — and $2 million will be used by colleges to buy equipment and hire instructors.
The money is distributed among the state’s seven community colleges, meaning Sheridan College will have about $300,000 in student grants to award per year.
Wyoming Works allows for a maximum grant of $1,680 per student per semester for up to six semesters. The new program will most likely impact adults returning to college or adults several years past high school who have not yet attended college.
Eligibility requirements include being a Wyoming resident, U.S. citizen and meeting certain GPA and class time thresholds. Students attending school through Wyoming Works must also not be eligible for the Hathaway Scholarship, meaning they need to be at least four years out of high school.
Sheridan College currently has 34 programs that qualify for Wyoming Works funding. The potential also exists for new, potentially non-credit programs that can originate at Sheridan College as early as October. New programs must end with industry certifications but do not need to lead toward a degree, a unique aspect of Wyoming Works.
Leah Barrett, Sheridan College Vice President of Student Affairs, said the institution is in the process of determining those new programs. She said some of the top priorities include construction, industrial sewing, health care and machine tooling.
The college is focusing on “specialized types of programs that don’t take two semesters or two years to finish and to help teach that skill,” Barrett said.
Barrett hopes Sheridan College can be creative and look outside the traditional semester framework for students who need a specific credential, skill or certification that can be earned in a relatively short amount of time. Potential examples include courses on nights and weekends and accelerated offerings where students take a class eight hours per day for six weeks.
“You want to get a promotion at your work but you have to wait until January — that’s not reasonable for adult returning students,” Barrett said. “We need to find ways to offer programs that are going to help people change their careers throughout a calendar year.”
If Wyoming Works continues past 2021, it will be because colleges around the state showed the impact it made.
Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, said the program is funded essentially as a proof of concept. Colleges and communities have two years to show how well the program is working, and then the Legislature will revisit future funding.
Kinskey, a member of the Joint Appropriations Committee that initiated the bill creating Wyoming Works, hopes it can eventually be a permanent aspect of community college funding and make a far-reaching economic impact.
“This is for those (people) that are just getting by but really want to step up to a better life,” Kinskey said.
Barrett agreed, saying that the program ideally will help open doors to higher-paying, more consistent jobs and careers.
The program should also should help reach an executive order last year from previous Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead stating Wyoming will achieve 67% post-secondary credential attainment by 2025 and 82% by 2040.
The most challenging aspect going forward will involve marketing to potential students.
“We’ve got the buildings, we’ve got the facilities, we’ve got the programs,” Rep. Mark Kinner, R-Sheridan, said. “Now we need to find these students that can take advantage of Wyoming Works.”
Kinner is also on the JAC and hopes incumbent Northern Wyoming Community College District President Walter Tribley could help with program ideas and working with local businesses and students.
Barrett said it is more difficult to reach people years removed from school.
“It’s not like recruiting traditional-aged high school students, where you have a captive audience at a high school,” Barrett said. “…Adult students looking for a career change are so diverse.”
Kinskey said local churches could help attract potential students for the program. Barrett said the most rewarding aspect will involve helping people advance in life despite various obstacles thrown their way.
“Helping people to live out their dream, because life sometimes gets in the way,” Barrett said.
Two years in the future, Kinskey hopes to bring real-life stories to the Wyoming Community College Commission and Legislature to illustrate that the program is working.
“The best testimony is a satisfied customer,” Kinskey said.
Details must still be sorted out, but the program should give Wyoming citizens a better chance of advancing in their jobs and careers through offerings at Sheridan College and other two-year schools.