CHEYENNE — The state of Wyoming has officially authorized its seven community colleges to offer Bachelor of Applied Science degrees. It’s the fruit of a hard-fought battle in the Legislature over Senate File 111 (now Enrolled Act 80.)
SF 111 was one piece of legislation seeking to bolster attainment in the state during the 2019 Legislature’s session.
In 2018, then-Gov. Matt Mead issued two executive orders to increase post-secondary attainment in Wyoming. The executive order was in response to a recommendation from the ENDOW committee, which seeks to find ways to diversify Wyoming’s economy.
The first order set a goal of 67 percent of Wyoming adults earning a post-secondary credential by 2025. The second executive order set that goal at 82 percent for 2045.
Last year, only 48 percent of Wyoming adults ages 25 to 64 had a post-secondary credential, a far cry from Mead’s goal, the deadline for which now looms even closer.
The number of bachelor’s degrees conferred in Wyoming has increased in the last decade, but not by much. In 2008, Wyoming conferred 1,802 bachelor’s degrees. In 2016, it conferred 2,164, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
While bachelor’s degrees are not the only credentials considered when calculating the attainment figure, as community colleges begin implementing new Bachelor of Applied Science programs, the hope is attainment will increase.
The degrees are narrowly tailored, so it isn’t like a bachelor’s degree offered by the University of Wyoming (though UW does offer some of the programs as well.) Only students who have earned Associates in Applied Science can enroll in the programs, and the goal is to qualify students for industry management positions.
Advocates argued during the Legislature session that allowing community colleges to offer the degrees allows broader access to attainment across the state. Before any of that can happen, though, colleges must complete a laundry list of tasks.
“It is up to the individual colleges to go through the next steps in a timely manner,” said Sandy Caldwell, executive director of the Wyoming Community College Commission.
Those steps include requesting approval to offer the higher-level degrees from the colleges’ accrediting agency, the Higher Learning Commission.
The commission allows institutions to offer up to three programs at a higher credential level than previously offered before having to go through a more robust accreditation process. Caldwell also said colleges will need to have internal discussions with their boards of trustees to make program decisions based on community need.
SF 111’s sponsor in the Legislature, Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, hopes the implementation of the programs will result in a more robust business environment in the state.
“I hope this results in making Wyoming more attractive for businesses to do their business here by creating the workforce they need,” she said.
The local bent of the bill is also a crucial component, she said. It’s up to the individual colleges’ boards of trustees to determine which programs are most crucial to their communities, and they do that through engagement with businesses and members of the public, she said.
Wyoming Business Alliance President Cindy Delancey agreed.
“In a state the size of Wyoming, we need all hands on deck,” she said.
Delancey was one of SF 111’s most vocal champions. She hopes it results in more Wyomingites in Wyoming’s workforce.
“In five years, it’s my hope the workforce in Wyoming will be filled with Wyoming workers instead of out-of-state workers,” she said.
She thinks the Bachelor of Applied Science programs will help the state reach that goal by putting more Wyoming students in the position to fill management roles.
Wyoming is the 25th state to authorize community colleges to offer the degrees, and though it will be some time before there’s useful data available from the programs, other states set a promising example.
Washington state authorized its community colleges to offer applied bachelor’s degrees in 2007. In the decade since, the state is matching upwards of 80 and 90 percent, and in some cases 100 percent, of program graduates with employers.
Still, Delancey said, this is just one tool in the toolbox, and she hopes the education community and the business community can continue to work together to meet the state’s goals.