Higher education trends

Local institutions engage students early, focus on career paths

Written by Amy Bird | Photography by Visual Fusion Photographics

This past May, 53 local students graduated with a high school degree in one hand and an associates degree from Butler Community College in the other. These students are part of a growing number of high school students who are getting a jump start on their careers, be it in the workplace or in college, by taking advantage of advanced placement, dual credit and early college programs.

"We are seeing a large number of students who are coming in with dual credit or concurrent credit education," says Tony Vizzini, Ph.D., PE, provost and senior vice president of Wichita State University.

Vizzini says the uptick of students coming in with credit is an example of how students are stretching their education dollars while broadening their opportunities by entering college with the ability to take advanced, degree-specific classes with general education courses already covered.

As students look for ways to optimize their education and mitigate debt, finding ways to get general education requirements as fast and inexpensively as possible is a key first step.

In response to demand, Friends University now offers a significantly reduced rate for many general education courses that can be taken during the summer months, in addition to the courses available to local high school students throughout the year. Wichita Area Technical College has partnered with area high schools through the JumpStart program, which helps high school students obtain credit in entry-level classes such as composition and algebra at a reduced rate.

Schools also are offering fast track courses to help students through basic education classes that may dissuade them from pursuing higher degrees.

Jessica Ohman, Ph.D., associate vice president of student services at Butler, says the accelerated learning programs they currently offer in English and courses in math that will be available in fall 2017, enable students to complete degrees that would be difficult for them to achieve under a normal sequence of general education requirements.

"Our intent with the accelerated math and English tracks is to help students reach their education goals more quickly," she explains, noting that Butler also is the only higher education institution in the state to offer the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program to further help students achieve success through learner-centered teaching strategies.

Career paths

For traditional students with a clear idea of what they want to do, starting college with credit positions them that much closer to a degree. For those who are still undecided, coming in with credit gives them time to explore their options without extending a four-year timeline for graduation.

To aid in this discovery, Vizzini says that WSU has developed FYE (First Year Experience) courses designed to inspire educational exploration as well as help students transition to a collegiate setting.

"We want to draw students in," Vizzini says. "For them to say, "I'm curious about that that is what you want to strengthen in a student. To feed that curiosity and yearning for education."

Once students have determined what they want to do, college career centers now play an important role in helping students determine, early on, the steps to take for employment post college.

"Our career services office works with the students, not just with seniors, but with students freshman year on, so they understand networking, the significance of internships, and what they need to do to obtain certain skills while they are students that will pay off when they leave school," says Ken Faffler, vice president of enrollment at Friends.

He notes that colleges are putting increasing focus on internships, industry partnerships and development of "soft-skills" to help students land a job once they graduate.

Faffler says Friends efforts are evident in the numbers. The university was recently ranked No. 44 in the nation No. 1 in Kansas by LendEDU's 2016 College Risk-Reward Indicator, which is determined by graduating students average loan debt and median early career salary. The risk/reward component of higher education has come under greater scrutiny in recent years as graduates look for work in a tight economy.

Following national trends, post-secondary education in Wichita is focused on developing ways to incorporate local industries in the classroom and helping students find employment following graduation.

This past spring, WATC introduced Wichita Promise to eliminate the barriers for adults who are either unemployed or underemployed with a flexible, tuition-free training program. "Number one, we pay tuition and fees, number two, we provide the training, certification and credentials they need to be job ready, number three, we provide personalized career coaching to help students be more prepared with soft skills, and number four, upon completion, we guarantee an interview with at least one company," says Sheree Utash, president of WATC.

"We hear all the time that there aren't enough people in the pipeline to fulfill jobs, not just in our community, but nationally. The reason we put Wichita Promise together is to increase the people in the pipeline for the skilled workforce, to be job ready, who are immediately ready to work for a good living wage," Utash explains.

Likewise, Butler, Friends and WSU all have career development programs designed to help connect students with industry, merging academics with the real world.

"We are always looking for new and different ways to partner with business and industry for our students," Ohman says, citing the fire science program at Butler where students can apply to live in the Eldorado firehouse for a semester to gain experience and get a feel for what the day-to-day work looks like.

Faffler details an innovative special education master's program at Friends that enables working teachers to pair their experience in the classroom with their degree coursework to obtain a master's as another way universities are drawing on outside partnerships to help their students achieve their goals.

"We want them to go back to their schools and implement what they've learned," he says. "The workshops and back and forth learning process of on-the-job training at the graduate level is unique, designed to be done in a year and it meets a big need."

In January 2017, Airbus will be relocating to a building on the WSU campus. He says the Airbus partnership is an example of how industry and educational institutions can work together to the benefit of both.

"Our focus has been on our interaction with the community and the role of public and private partnerships to have an industry presence to interact with faculty and students," says Vizzini.

"When (our students) leave with a degree they are corporate ready and can immediately generate value for the company they work for," he says of those who will graduate with work experience at Airbus. "The advantage to Airbus, is that they have first pick and can draft the very best."

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