SHERIDAN — Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead set ambitious education goals last November when he issued an executive order stating Wyoming will achieve 67 percent post-secondary credential attainment by 2025 and 82 percent by 2040.
The University of Wyoming and the state’s seven community colleges have looked at several different avenues to meet those figures. One of the ways is to increase the number of nontraditional students, particularly adults interested in going back to college to receive a degree and/or certificate.
Leah Barrett, Sheridan College’s vice president of student affairs, said administrators are considering a few options to best increase that number but admitted its challenges.
“When you’re working with adult returning students, they’re priorities are very different,” Barrett said. “They have dependent care responsibilities (and) they often have a full-time job, and so school is kind of third in that line.”
Barrett also said adult returning students generally require more time and attention than traditional students who are more familiar with navigating around educational logistics.
“Scholarship dollars are important, but you also have to have resource support,” Barrett said. “It’s not like they can just quit a job and not have income to come to school … That’s the part that I think is the most challenging about reaching adult returning students.”
To fully aid adult returning students on their path to a degree, Barrett said Sheridan College needs more individualized support staff. The clearest way to do that is expanding the College Success Program — which assists underrepresented students — to include a specialist to work specifically with adult returning students, though the college has no immediate plans to do so.
Sheridan College has had about the same number of adult returning students enrolled for the past few years. In fall 2017, 24 percent of Sheridan College students were age 25 or older.
“We believe that part of our responsibility, as we look to diversify the economy, is to reach our adult returning student population,” Barrett said. “We think that’s an untapped market in our state, and we want to try to find ways to connect and attract those students.”
However, it is difficult to determine to which adults the college should market itself. For traditional students, college recruiters can visit high schools and present information. It is far more challenging to simultaneously address large groups of adults interested in returning to school.
Barrett said the college is also working on creating relationships in the community between existing services and the needs of adult students, such as connecting a parent with an early child care provider.
“We don’t always have to create the services here on campus,” Barrett said. “We have to create the avenue to access the services that the community already holds.”
Another option for Sheridan College is something similar to what Laramie County Community College will embark upon later this year, a program named Rediscover LCCC. The three-year pilot program is the first of its kind in Wyoming and officially begins in the upcoming fall semester.
The program covers all LCCC tuition and fees for up to two years. Members of the program must have not earned a college degree; be at least 25 years old; be a Wyoming resident who has lived in the state for the past three years; attend LCCC full-time while carrying at least a 2.5 GPA; and apply for federal student aid. Rediscover LCCC is open to people pursuing a degree in business, education, health care, information technology, legal studies or any type of trade.
Rediscover LCCC is modeled after Tennessee Reconnect, a program that essentially provides free tuition, along with additional student support, for adults returning to Tennessee state schools.
LCCC President Joe Schaffer referred to the new program as a proof of concept he hopes to see expand to other community colleges in Wyoming.
Wyoming has 87,034 working-aged adults with just a high school diploma and 56,149 with some college education but no credential, according to the Lumina Foundation. Combined, those numbers equal about 30 percent of the state’s adult population.
“It’s a huge component,” Schaffer said. “If we just got 25 percent of that population to earn a higher education, our attainment rates would jump from 48 percent to over 60 percent.”
Schaffer sees Rediscover LCCC as a complement to the Hathaway Scholarship, a merit-based program for traditional students.
“We believe the state needs a need-based scholarship program of a similar magnitude focused on adults,” Schaffer said. “That’s really the vision for this. We hope this sets the stage and makes the argument for why this type of program is needed and how it can be successfully designed.”
Schaffer said Rediscover LCCC is geared toward degree programs that have jobs in Wyoming. He added that the three-year resident requirement was put in place to target people specifically committed to Wyoming.
Schaffer anticipates about 100 students participating in the LCCC program in the first year and eventually serving 300 students over the course of three years.
Moreover, Schaffer said LCCC hopes to present the program’s first two years of data to the Legislature during its next budget session in 2020, thus moving the discussions toward a statewide need-based program.
The attainment goals are lofty, but by beginning new programs like Rediscover LCCC, Wyoming colleges are taking steps to drive more residents toward a college education.