I am alarmed at the free college rhetoric that hit the Wyoming news cycle over the past week. I know our post-secondary institutions are concerned about enrollment being down this fall and the financial hardship that will cause. But dangling the offer of free college with federal CARES money is not the right message or strategy for that money or our state. It is all too easy in contemporary politics for politicians to offer free everything, we can do better than that in Wyoming.
A draft bill, proposed by Speaker Harshman, and supported by minority leaders Rothfuss and Connolly, originally carved out $116 million in scholarships for Wyoming’s college students if they certify they will wear a “face covering ” and wash or sanitize “hands” and “surfaces” “frequently.” Scholarships for abiding by health orders that are legally required and that we are expected to follow is curious. And are we really going to enforce whether scholarship recipients are frequently sanitizing surfaces and wearing masks? I doubt it and I hope not.
Thankfully, members of the task force that discussed the bill late last week, the Wyoming’s Tomorrow Task Force, had a lot of questions. The Attorney General also raised concerns. As a result, amendments are in the works to hopefully improve the legislation. Staff from UW submitted a plan that would place COVID-19-caused financial need in front of carte blanche payments to students. In other words, a hand up, not a handout. This is the strategic effort that is needed to be sure Wyoming maximizes the use of its federal funds.
The foreseeable enrollment decline at UW and our community colleges is troubling. And, federal CARES dollars could help soften the impact. But we must first ask, “Are we helping the institutions get through budget cuts, or are we helping Wyoming people achieve their education and career goals?” It is unlikely that anyone will admit that free tuition is being offered to offset budget cuts to institutions. Yet, that is exactly what is happening now.
Rather than patching a one-year hole, the Wyoming Legislature has a rare opportunity to make long-lasting changes that achieve our attainment goals for higher education, boost our working population, and build out sectors that show promise in strengthening our state’s economy.
I encourage the legislature to spend federal CARES dollars to promote higher education in three ways:
First, financial assistance should be prioritized for students with a known financial need and for students pursuing degrees or careers in areas that are in-demand in Wyoming. This means students who were working themselves through school and no longer have a paycheck to afford school and adults who are displaced from their jobs in need of more education to expand employment opportunities would be given priority. These are the people most in need of CARES stimulus funding and the population UW voiced support for targeting. (As a side note, eligible students will continue to receive the Hathaway Scholarship.)
Second, over 800 UW and community college courses are now available online. This is a game changer for adult learners across the state, from Midwest to Pinedale. Federal CARES dollars should be spent to ensure that broadband, connectivity, and access to technology is not an issue for any person in Wyoming. The Wyoming Legislature has the ability, right now, to close the “digital divide” in Wyoming. Using federal CARES dollars to build out a broadband infrastructure and provide connectivity is an investment in all Wyomingites, especially students.
Third, in light of the economic downturn prior to March coupled with COVID-19 revenue losses, there is a great opportunity for an investment in Wyoming’s workforce. The Wyoming Legislature should set up a grant program for business and industry to partner with high schools, community colleges, and UW to prepare students for Wyoming’s jobs of tomorrow. The grants should incentivize business and education to develop and implement training and degree programs for high-skilled, high-wage jobs in energy, advanced manufacturing, healthcare, cybersecurity, computer science, and other areas. Standing up new training programs lasts longer than one year of financial assistance to college students, it lasts for generations. This concept is some of what the Task Force discussed and intends to at least in part enlist the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services to implement.
Federal money, state money, tuition money-it all comes from somewhere, nothing is free. A scholarship to wear a mask is not the right direction for Wyoming. Let’s work together to continue our diligence in strategic deployment of federal CARES dollars to advance our state for the future, not simple stop gap measures born from reactive policymaking.