More degrees, more money: Higher education leaders aim to boost economy

Wyoming’s higher education leaders are looking at ways to increase the number of Wyoming residents with college degrees or postsecondary certificates.

The task is grounded in research from the Georgetown University Center of Education and the Workforce that looks at how a state’s level of educational attainment and is related to its economy.

“The more educated the population, typically, the more robust the economy,” University of Wyoming President Laurie Nichols said. “So, there’s a direct link between educational attainment of a population and economic development and economic vitality, and they’re very closely related to one another.”

Wyoming’s level of educational attainment — the percentage of its residents ages 25-64 with a postsecondary certificate, associate degree or higher — is roughly equal to the national average of 45.8 percent, according to the Lumina Foundation.

Lumina is a private foundation active across the nation in its mission to increase the country’s level of educational attainment.

The foundation aims to see 60 percent of Americans having “high-quality” degrees by 2025 and advances this mission by convincing states to enact a statewide attainment goal that is “quantifiable, challenging, long-term, addresses gaps, and is in statute and/or a strategic plan.”

To date, 26 states have set goals meeting Lumina’s criteria. The foundation wants Wyoming to become number 27.

A representative from Lumina — and public policy experts invited by Lumina — presented to the UW Board of Trustees during its July retreat in Rock Springs.

Also in attendance were representative from the governor’s office, the Wyoming Legislature, community colleges and the state’s Community College Commission.

University officials invited the other higher education stakeholders to the board retreat because developing a more highly educated workforce is too large a job for UW alone, Nichols said.

“It would be a statewide effort,” she said. “And really getting the governor’s office involved so that arm of government is backing it is, I think, a very important move. I mean, we’re going to have to have broad buy-in to be able to change (educational attainment levels).”

No action was taken by the board during the retreat. Nichols said the goal of the presentation was to introduce the idea to Wyoming’s higher education stakeholders and consider setting a goal.

Jim Rose, executive director of the Community College Commission, was present for the speeches and said the conversation was stimulating.

“One of the things that has made this a little more of a nuanced conversation for us is we are already part of the Complete College America Alliance of States,” Rose said. “And we’ve been a member state for a number of years.”

Complete College Wyoming — a group comprised of all seven community colleges and UW — and the Lumina Foundation have similar, but not identical, goals.

“We want to get this to a point where we have more students completing at a higher rate so students are coming to our institution and they’re graduating more quickly through the system and they’re achieving their academic and career goals in a more timely fashion,” Rose said.

Whereas Lumina’s focus is on increasing the percentage of Wyomingites with college degrees, Complete College Wyoming is more focused on retention and assuring that people who start college stay until they complete their degrees.

“And I don’t think they’re at odds necessarily, but they’re looking in slightly different directions,” Rose said.

He added the conversation was now about how those two goals for higher education would work in tandem or if the addition of a Lumina-approved goal would alter the goal set by Complete College Wyoming.

Achieving a higher rate of educational attainment — especially a lofty goal such as 60 percent — is no easy task, but Nichols said it might be necessary given the growing desire to diversify the Wyoming’s economy.

The best representation of this growing desire is the ENDOW Initiative, which established an executive council of business and community leaders and tasked that council with developing a strategy for sustainable growth and diversification.

“So, as we think about the ENDOW initiative and the economic diversification in Wyoming, paying attention to education is a big part of that, because they’re just so closely connected to one another,” she said.

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