Editor’s note: This is the second of two stories about how many Wyoming residents have bachelor’s degrees — and why some in the Cowboy State want to increase those numbers.
Increasing the number of college degree holders in Wyoming is one of the University of Wyoming’s top priorities, but doing so involves multiple facets.
A 2009 U.S. Census Bureau report found that while Wyoming had the highest percentage of any state of residents with high school degrees, it ranked it 40th for bachelor’s degree holders. Wyoming’s college-going rate through the last 10 years has been relatively flat, which Anne Alexander UW’s associate vice president for Undergraduate Education, said has a lot to do with the fact people in the state historically didn’t really need college degrees to earn an adequate wage.
Effectively enticing people in Wyoming that might not have considered college could require a cultural shift among residents and the university, Alexander said. And while working with Wyoming’s public school students is important, she said UW is also looking at how to best work with community colleges and appealing to those who have left the workforce as a result of the current economic bust in the state.
“It’s working with the community colleges and the (Wyoming) Department of Education and parents and communities to change that college-going culture,” she said. “Once they’re here, we can’t just say, ‘Here ya go — figure it out.’ You’re seeing this in enrollment trends across the country, that who our college population is is different from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. We have a lot more first-generation, a lot more minorities, low income. Economic diversity is rising, so we can’t just do what we did in the 1800s and throw people to the wolves.”
Adjusting to new norms
Rob Godby is an associate professor in the Department of Economics and Finance and the director at UW Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy. He said making the case that Wyoming high school graduates should consider college is complicated by family norms.
“In Wyoming, because there tends to be a higher number of adults with high school diplomas, but not college degrees, families tend to reflect this, and therefore there can develop a cultural expectation that high school completion is expected among children as kids emulate their parents, but the same expectation does not occur for a college degree,” he says in an email. “The result is often fewer college graduates in the state, as this is not expected in Wyoming families like it is in other centers where children are more likely to have parents who have achieved a college degree.”
Many of Wyoming’s resident college students are the first in their families to pursue post-secondary, Alexander said. These first generation students — which can account for one-third or more of any given incoming class — might not inherently have the skills needed make it through the first year at UW, which has a significant effect on the numbers of students that complete their college education. But Alexander said the university is taking steps to do better with those first generation students.
“A couple of things we’re looking at doing now is how we take our first-year seminar — which is a course that’s part of our general education curriculum that helps our students learn how to be scholars and adjust to the expectations of what it means to be a college student, and by that I mean classroom expectations, learning how to take in other people’s perspectives and learning critical design and creative thinking — and putting some scaffolding around that that goes throughout the year,” she said.
Though UW faces challenges with graduating students, Godby says it’s not any worse than the norm for comparable institutions. UW’s retention rate is 76 percent, topping a national average just less than 71 percent, according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System from the National Center for Education Statistics, a branch of the Department of Education.
“Our retention rate is identical to similar schools in other states,” he says. “We feel we could do a lot better but we are currently not doing too badly. … . Internal research has shown our outcomes are exactly the same as the average of 11 near-peer schools.”
Because of Laramie’s college culture, Albany County School District No. 1 is “blessed” that many of its students are already in a mindset that puts them on a path to postsecondary plans, Superintendent Jubal Yennie said. However, he said the district and other education leaders around the state are always looking to do better.
“The idea is how do we increase the number of students going that direction?” Yennie said.
Whether it’s ACT preparation programs, guidance counseling or advanced placement courses that count for college credit, staff at Laramie High School try throughout students’ public school careers to prepare them for life after high school, said John Weigel, ASCD No. 1 assistant superintendent of instruction.
“There are opportunities they have while in high school,” Weigel said. “There are concurrent courses for college and high school credit, and they actually take that with a qualified instructor within the high school campus. Each year we try to evaluate and add to that list where kids can get that credit while still in high school. Recently, even in vocational areas, we added a dual credit course that’s taught by a college instructor. Hopefully, if they’ve never thought about that option, hopefully that would put them on a track.”
A freshman level course also allows students to explore career options and provides some of the information on what they’d need to do to find a particular job.
“If you want to be a successful accountant, what does that look like?” Weigel said. “What is the training, what are the skills needed, and that’s kind of a beginning level course that hopefully gets students thinking.”
LHS also provides guidance when it comes to taking advantage of the Hathaway scholarship — a permanent state-funded endowment designed to provide qualified Wyoming high school graduates with a financial incentive to attend UW or in-state community colleges.
Just less than 2,400 students initiated Hathaway scholarships in the 2015-2016 school year. A majority — 1,486 — used the scholarship to attend community colleges, followed by 910 who attended UW with Hathaway assistance.
The Hathaway scholarship continues to be foundational to recruiting Wyoming high school graduates to UW and Wyoming community colleges, said Chris Boswell, UW vice president for Governmental and Community Affairs. But he said UW is looking to provide further incentives as they try to boost enrollment.
“The Hathaway is an unbelievable opportunity, but we have to do what we can to go beyond Hathaway and offer additional help and inducements for students to come to UW and the community colleges,” he said.
Boswell said UW wants to put in more work with high schools and community colleges to make a case for the benefits of attaining four year degrees in Wyoming and generally increase public awareness of financial assistance opportunities.
“There’s an element of making sure high school kids know that the community colleges in the state and the university are here, that we are not a barrier, but we are in fact a gateway to their careers that’s worth considering,” Boswell said. “As the economy of the state fluctuates up and down, you might have high school kids that might think they have to leave the state to pursue jobs, and I think the intent is to say, ‘You have some pretty terrific options in Wyoming that include colleges and include the university and keep that in mind.’”
Graduate and evaluate
Wyoming is among the top states for high school degree holders, but its high school graduation rate sits at just more than 79 percent. Though the Department of Education reported the national graduation rate saw a record high for the 2014-2015 school year at 83 percent — the fifth consecutive year it’s risen — Wyoming’s rate has bounced between 77-80 percent since the 2009-2010 school year.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow said that rate is unacceptable. Though she said she won’t discount the value of UW or a four-year degree, Balow thinks the Wyoming Department of Education could boost graduation rates if there are more postsecondary options available.
“We have 20 percent of our kids that aren’t graduating from high school,” she said. “Those kids who aren’t graduating aren’t, in my estimation, drop out material. Somewhere along the way, we’ve made school irrelevant for them. And only when we start talking about postsecondary success as being more than college-readiness will we ensure relevancy for that 20 percent of students.”
Balow said Wyoming high school students that don’t graduate from high school are at a significant disadvantage. But at the same time, she said there are residents with bachelor’s degrees unable to find jobs. A 2013 publication from the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services on educational attainment and success in the labor market says “the ‘payoff’ for a college degree seems increasingly elusive as more new graduates find themselves un- or underemployed.”
But statistics show unemployment declines for those with higher educational attainment in Wyoming. The Wyoming Department of Workforce Services found in 2014 that for residents older than 25, the unemployment rate for those without a high school degree was 5.6 percent, those with a high school degree was 4.1 percent, those with some college or an associate’s degree was 3.3 percent and only 2 percent for those with a bachelor’s degree were unemployed.
Wyoming Department of Workforce Services Senior Economist David Bullard said it’s not surprising because it follows a pattern seen across the nation.
“The data seems clear that people with more education are more likely to be employed and less likely to be unemployed,” he said. “Clearly the economy rewards people with education. It appears skills are in demand.”
But because of the makeup of Wyoming’s job market, Bullard said those with degrees that don’t relate to its key industries are often incentivized to go elsewhere to find work.
“Wyoming is the smallest state in the nation in terms of population, and our economy is not very well diversified,” he said. “Our economy is weighted pretty heavily toward mining, oil and gas, so we don’t see the diversity of jobs one would see in a metropolitan area.”
Balow said she wanted to emphasize options for graduates outside of college degrees. Job training, certification and military can all yield prosperity for Wyoming residents after high school, she said.
“It’s about making sure students understand postsecondary success isn’t just about going to college,” she said. “We’re not doing our job if we’re only talking about four-year degrees.”
Yennie said LHS also provides students with pathways to workforce readiness tracks that don’t involve a four-year degree. Though guidance counseling and with freshmen classes, Weigel said opportunities for a quality career that might involve certification rather than a college degree are emphasized.
“I think we are working pretty closely with (Laramie County Community College) in some of those areas even regionally to highlight what some opportunities for careers in the region,” Weigel said.
Of the approximately 79 percent of Wyoming high school students that graduate, just more than 42 percent enroll in a Wyoming postsecondary institution, according to data from compiled from the Wyoming Department of Education, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and National Center for Education Statistics. Just more than 14 percent enrolled in out-of-state institutions.
With only one university in the state, Alexander said UW doesn’t have to compete with another doctoral institution within Wyoming. But UW’s enrollment and alumni are concentrated heavily in the Casper, Laramie and Cheyenne areas. Many of the other population densities lie on borders with other states, which Alexander said leads some potential students to explore options outside of Wyoming.
“The populations that live on the edges — next to Nebraska, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Colorado — so if I graduate from high school in northern Wyoming, I might think about going to (college) in Montana, and that’s something most other states don’t have to deal with,” she said. “That’s why we’re building that loyalty. …We have to get the college-going rate of students up, and we want them to come to (UW) or a (Wyoming) community college, but if they go somewhere else, that’s good. But once they’ve decided on college, how do we make it clear that we are the best value and we have the right programs for you?”
Whatever path Wyoming graduates choose to pursue when leaving high school, Balow said some kind of postsecondary plan is critical.
“What we know without a doubt is not graduating from high school is setting yourself up for failure,” she said.
This is the second story in a two-part series looking at how some in Wyoming want to increase the number of four-year college degree holders in the state. See Saturday’s Laramie Boomerang for the first part.
By the numbers:
Wyoming high school graduation rates:
Source: Wyoming Department of Education
Percent of Wyoming high school graduates enrolled in Wyoming higher education institution:
Percent of Wyoming high school graduates enrolled in out-of-state institutions:
Source: Wyoming Department of Education, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and National Center for Education Statistics