Fight for Wyoming’s Tomorrow scholarship at another crossroads

Laramie County Community College leaders and other education supporters are advocating for a new state scholarship program that will provide financial assistance for adult learners to attend college, which would benefit not only the individuals, but also the community and state. (Photo: LCCC)

There’s a lot at stake for Laramie County Community College (LCCC) President Joe Schaffer as he watches the Wyoming Legislature proceed through its 2024 budget session.

A pivotal decision looms on the horizon — one that could significantly alter the educational landscape for adult learners. Schaffer’s focus is on the Wyoming’s Tomorrow Scholarship, an initiative to help adults over the age of 24, many of whom are returning to education in the face of life’s myriad challenges.

The impetus behind Schaffer’s advocacy is both philosophical and pragmatic. He understands the transformative impact of education on individuals and communities, particularly in a state like Wyoming, where only 29% of the population aged 25 or older hold a bachelor’s degree.

The project initially emerged in work seeking to diversify Wyoming’s economy during Gov. Matt Mead’s administration. That economic diversification initiative, called ENDOW, prioritized increasing college degree attainment among Wyoming’s population, calling for 67% of Wyomingites to have advanced degrees by 2025

But Schaffer, who serves on the American Association of Community Colleges board of directors, realized that reaching that mark would mean asking many nontraditional-age prospective students to seek college degrees. Doing that meant those people would have to forego working wages to some degree while working toward their academic goals.

“Wyoming has no need-based aid program for adults to go to college, and those folks are often tied to jobs where going back to school isn’t really an option,” Schaffer says. “When we started to look at how we were going to be more economically competitive as a state, we knew we needed to do something through education. We asked ourselves, ‘How do we tap into that?’”

An incentive for improvement

To reach college attainment goals, the state needs to assist those wanting to return to college or seeking a degree for the first time as adults. Doing that, Schaffer says, would require finding a way to give those prospective students financial assistance during their education. The payoff, if it works, Schaffer says, is a no-brainer.

“The initiative is really part of this economic development push to try to increase educational attainment,” he says. “When we started looking at this, there were something like 130,000 adults in Wyoming who had either just a high school diploma or some college but never completed.”

He continues: “In the state of 500,000 people, you’re talking a huge proportion. But they’re all working, so to think about going back to school is challenging because how many are going pay tuition and fees and work less?”

The political challenge

One of Wyoming’s greatest historical legislative achievements was the establishment of the popular merit- and needs-based Hathaway Scholarship. Community college leaders for years have been trying to establish an endowment that would support adult learners in the way Hathaway supports high school graduates in the form of the Wyoming’s Tomorrow scholarship.

In 2022, lawmakers allocated $10 million to the Wyoming’s Tomorrow endowment, meaning it would need an additional $40 million before reaching the $50 million necessary for any money to be dispersed for scholarships. The 2023 session saw another $20 million added, bringing the endowment to $30 million.

Currently, Kickstart Wyoming’s Tomorrow Scholarship offers crucial support, granting up to $1,800 per semester to eligible adults. This stopgap measure, with the idea that it will support adult learners until Wyoming’s Tomorrow reaches its $50 million threshold, underscores the urgency of fully funding Wyoming’s Tomorrow, a goal that hinges on the current legislative session’s outcomes.

Former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal navigated making Hathaway a reality. He says an investment in Wyoming’s Tomorrow could make a positive impact on the state comparable to Hathaway.

“A lot of this boils down to the importance we place on ensuring people have the opportunity to improve their future prospects,” Freudenthal says. “The data is very clear: if you obtain a degree, you’re going to have higher earnings over your lifetime. So, the arguments are straightforward. The question is, which arguments do people find persuasive? And I find the argument about financial betterment through education to be particularly convincing.”

LCCC President Joe Schaffer is hopeful that he and other education advocates can convince state lawmakers of the multiple benefits of the proposed Wyoming’s Tomorrow Scholarship. (Photo: LCCC)

But In Wyoming’s conservative supermajority Legislature, the line is often that the state should save more and spend less. While Schaffer says he understands lawmakers’ thinking in continuing to increase savings, he is, in the context of Wyoming’s Tomorrow, asking whether Wyoming is missing an opportunity by not investing in its adult learners. He notes that many college-age students who earn a degree in Wyoming often move out of state, while nontraditional students have a better chance of staying in Wyoming.

“We need to make sure we look at the assets we have available,” Schaffer says. “There’s a huge proportion of our population that are already here and already committed to the state, but doesn’t have a postsecondary education. From our perspective, the game-changer is what if we removed a barrier that got them to go back to college and advance in education in an area that the state needed that would help us with economic diversification, which leads to economic stability, social mobility, all that good stuff.”

Finding a way to allocate the remaining $20 million to the Wyoming’s Tomorrow endowment would be a strategic investment in the state’s future, Schaffer continues. He’s optimistic the program has support in the House; It’s the Senate that will be the hurdle.

“There are some very vocal people in the Senate that see this as welfare or a handout,” Schaffer says.

A return on investment

The importance of the proposed scholarship is underscored by the broader societal benefits of higher education. According to a Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce report, Wyoming ranks 40th among states in terms of percentage change in degree attainment between 2010-2020. This statistic is a stark reminder of the state’s need for educational initiatives like Wyoming’s Tomorrow, especially given the positive correlation between higher education and economic activity. In addition, college education not only improves individual economic prospects but also bolsters national productivity, civil society and enhanced public health, the study says.

LCCC has doubled its graduation rate over the last 20 years, but its leaders believe the college has room to do better. Just 23% of associate-degree graduates and 37% of occupational certificate earners garner at least $35,000 annually two years after completion. Of four associate-degree graduates at LCCC, two will successfully transfer to a university partner. Of those two, one will earn a bachelor’s degree in three years. There are also significant gaps in outcomes for LCCC’s low-income, first-generation, and students of color, as seen in persistent poverty rates among those groups in the community.

Education means an engaged citizenry

In terms of a healthy civic society, there are reasons to believe increasing the educational attainment rate in the state could have high-value non-economic impacts.

Wyoming is one of 13 states where the voter registration rate sits at less than 85%, according to the Movement Advancement Project (MAP), a progressive nonprofit think tank. In 2022, the Wyoming secretary of state estimated there were 446,379 eligible voters in the Cowboy State. Only 67% of those of voting age were registered to vote, and only 44.4% cast a ballot in the general election.

In the neighboring state of Colorado, 78% of registered voters cast ballots in the 2020 election. Compare that with Colorado’s 41% of adults holding at least a bachelor’s degree — the third highest rate in the nation — and the data seem compelling.

“The benefits of a higher education are incredible,” Schaffer says. “The only people that have struggled with it are those that would prefer Wyoming doesn’t grow, that we don’t need to add new jobs. We don’t want to add new people. We like it how it is. And I don’t know that I have an argument for that. But, you know, for me, education is still one of the best ways to improve your life. It’s one of the best ways to strengthen a community. And we got people who are already here that can benefit from it. And so why not help them defray the cost to go back and get that?”

An opportunity for change

As the 2024 budget session moves toward its critical final days where the final details of the budget will be ironed out, the decision on funding Wyoming’s Tomorrow carries significant implications. It represents a critical opportunity for Wyoming to invest in its human capital, enhancing not only the economic prospects of its citizens but also contributing to a more engaged and vibrant civic society.

The decision on Wyoming’s Tomorrow thus stands as a defining moment for the state. It’s an opportunity to affirm the importance of inclusive education and to take a decisive step towards fostering a more educated, engaged, and prosperous Wyoming.

About the Author

Joel Funk
Joel Funk is a marketing specialist at Laramie County Community College in Wyoming.
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