SHERIDAN — Six of Wyoming’s seven community colleges have begun the process of seeking approval to offer Bachelor of Applied Sciences degrees to their students.

The bill granting Wyoming’s seven community colleges permission to begin the accreditation process was sponsored by Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, and signed into law by Gov. Mark Gordon March 15, 2019. Laramie County Community College and Central Wyoming College are the two campuses furthest along in the process, having received approval to move forward with the degrees from the Wyoming Community College Commission on Oct. 24 in Gillette.

Also in attendance at the meeting were University of Wyoming President Neil Theobald and Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette.

The next and final step is to receive accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission, according to Executive Director of the Association for Community College Trustees Erin Taylor.

At the most recent meeting of the Higher Learning Commission, Western Community College and Northwest Community College both announced that they are going to begin the process.

“We definitely support the opportunity for the colleges because their job really is to respond to their local communities, and this bill came from the local communities,” Taylor said. “It really started in Cheyenne through their Greater Forward Cheyenne conversation.”

Forward Cheyenne and local businesses accepted the recommendation for four-year programs from their residents and presented it to the Legislature.

Northern Wyoming Community College District President Walter Tribley said he supports the move and believes it can play an important role in strengthening the state’s economy.

“It is a necessary and essential step for our state government to help provide opportunities for people to get a degree where they live,” Tribley said.

Tribley pointed out that traditional four-year universities and community colleges serve different types of students generally, “and community colleges tend to be pretty good at serving those students.”

Tribley said he hopes the University of Wyoming will continue leading research in areas like carbon capture technology while continuing to support the evolving mission of Wyoming’s community colleges, as they are all a part of Wyoming’s higher education community.

“I personally have a vested interest in the University of Wyoming excelling as a world-class research institution, and we will continue to partner with them whenever and wherever we can,” Tribley said.

The schools are united in their economic role as well. Tribley mentioned a recent state attainment goal for 67% of 24- to 65-year-olds to have a valuable post-secondary credentials by 2025, and said that community colleges will play a large role in that effort. In particular, Tribley believes the ability to better serve non-traditional students who are unable to relocate to Laramie due to work or family obligations will be crucial to continued economic growth.

Tribley said it was premature to disclose the names of the anticipated degree programs, as the college is still in the first steps of approval. The earliest start date for students pursuing baccalaureate degrees at Sheridan College is the fall 2021 semester, he added.

Though Rep. Mark Kinner, R-Sheridan, opposed the initial legislation since he thought the legislature’s financial picture of the proposal was incomplete at the time, he has expressed similar support now that the process has begun.

“I wasn’t opposed to the concept, but I was opposed to the bill. I felt like it was a little bit too far, too fast,” Kinner said. “Now that it’s passed, I’m all about it.”

Kinner said a bachelor of applied science will be helpful for those who learn to excel in a trade but otherwise may not have the training in management, accounting or legal matters to go into business for themselves.

“I think it’s a great long-term plan,” Kinner said. “It’s gonna take some time for the colleges to make sure what programs work best.”

As a member of the appropriations committee, Kinner wants to see whether the colleges are currently prepared to offer the anticipated programs or will need to spend to higher additional faculty.

“So to me it’s a balancing act, but overall I really think it is a good thing,” Kinner said.

University of Wyoming Provost and Vice President for Student Affairs Katie Miller initially testified in opposition to the senate bill on behalf of the University of Wyoming, but said the university will support the efforts of the community colleges as long as they are serving an essentially distinct pool of students.

“The community colleges are pretty clearly trying to serve an audience that is different from the one that we serve,” Miller said.

Miller said her testimony to the senate in February was intended to present facts about the services the university provides students, especially its bachelor of applied sciences program, which currently serves 140 students.

“The way things were being presented was maybe not as attentive to some of the details that we knew about at UW,” Miller said.

Miller gave the example of common criticism that UW does not accept enough transfer courses, but sometimes community college students may have as many as 90 credit hours of first and second-year courses, since that’s all the community colleges have been able to provide.

In addition to continuing to accept transfer credits, Miller said the university can partner win community colleges to provide joint courses and distance classes.

“As long as we move forward with the premise that the community colleges are truly serving audiences that the University of Wyoming in Laramie would not be serving, I think it’ll be very good for the state and potentially if they can get the enrollment to help with the attainment goals.

“But it has to really truly be that they are looking at different audiences for it to be a great benefit to the state all  around,” Miller said.