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A combination of enrollment, alternative certification choices and finances doomed the University of Wyoming’s technical education program, despite calls from alumni and educators to save the degree.

The program, which instructs future teachers in industrial fields like welding and carpentry, was one of roughly a dozen that were extensively reviewed by the university as it seeks to gauge student interest in its programs, Provost Kate Miller said.

It and others were targeted specifically for their low enrollment numbers: Technical education, which is based at the university’s Casper campus, has one instructor and graduated 15 students between 2010 and 2015, according to university data.

Ray Reutzel, the dean of the UW College of Education, recommended the program be eliminated, a sentiment echoed by Miller. Earlier this month, the university’s Board of Trustees voted to eliminate the technical education, along with four other low-enrollment programs.

In response to public comment opposing the elimination of the program, Reutzel wrote in December that dropping enrollment “reflects a waning relevance and interest” and that the university’s current fiscal situation meant that “we cannot provide every conceivable degree program to the state.”

Rod Thompson, the program’s sole instructor, pointed to expanding programs at colleges in Nebraska and Kansas as evidence that technical education remains relevant.

He said one reason for the low enrollment is a lack of advertising by the university. He said students who asked recruiters about the program were told that it didn’t exist.

“They’ve kind of just chosen a direction,” he said of the board’s decision to eliminate the program. He found out this month that his program had been eliminated through a press release. “I think in the direction they’ve chosen they have really not looked with an open mind at the needs of the state of Wyoming.”

Finding teachers

During public comment periods late last year, other educators echoed Thompson’s dismay and resistance to the program’s elimination. Kate Muir Welsh, the secondary education department chair at UW, wrote to Reutzel that the tech ed degree was “unique to this region.” She noted the service it provided to Natrona County schools.

Mance Hurley, a welding instructor at Pathways Innovation Center in Casper, said he and the other two teachers in his academy at Pathways are all graduates of the technical education program at UW-C. He had a plumbing business for 25 years but decided to go back to school later in life, graduating at 50 years old.

He said he loves his job now and “couldn’t believe” that the university’s administration and Board of Trustees decided to eliminate the program. He predicted that a lack of teachers like him would have an adverse effect on students.

“If (schools) can’t find a teacher, they’ll just drop the programs, and that would really be a shame,” Hurley said. “Quite frankly, a lot of kids, the only reason they stay in school is because they like programs like that. That makes them come every day.”

He was not alone in making the charge that the elimination of the program would create a dearth of instructors. Several letters sent to university officials expressed concern about whether Wyoming schools could find qualified teachers should the program be eliminated.

Josh Michelena of the Wyoming Technology Education Association wrote in December to UW President Laurie Nichols that schools across the state are already struggling to find instructors. Robert Hill, a construction teacher in Natrona County, wrote that eliminating the program would leave the state “severely handcuffed” for years to come.

Other options

But Miller and Jeff Edgens, the director of UW-C, both said they didn’t expect the elimination of the program to create a gap in available talent. They said would-be instructors can still become PIC certified, an industrial teaching license that is more narrowly tailored than the broad skills taught at technical education programs like UW-C’s.

“Higher education is having to change its models, workforce needs are shifting, and the licensing structure is also shifting too,” Edgens said, “which also puts a different spin, if you will, or a different set of pressures on degree programs that we offer.”

But it’s unclear how popular the PIC certification is statewide. In his letter to Provost Miller, Thompson said PIC licenses were relatively uncommon.

“Of the 284 Trade and Technical license holders in the state of Wyoming, 47 hold a PIC permit,” he wrote.

In an interview last week, he said the PIC licenses allow instructors to teach only specific areas, whereas degrees from the technical education program provide a broader expertise. That may not matter in larger cities like Casper or Cheyenne, but in smaller towns a school may have only one technical education instructor who needs a wide breadth of knowledge.

Despite cuts to university funding, Miller and Edgens said money was not the deciding factor in the program’s elimination. The Board of Cooperative Educational Services, or BOCES, had previously provided $11,700 in funding to the technical education program. The organization is a joint effort between Casper College and the Natrona County School District to support educational programs in the county.

In a letter to Edgens sent earlier this spring, Jeana Lam-Pickett, the manager of BOCES, said that board would increase funding to $43,700 for at least the 2017-18 school year, with the potential to maintain that level of aid into the near future.

“The (BOCES) board just feels that one, it’s needed greatly in the state of Wyoming,” Lam-Pickett said in an interview last week.

But Miller said that because the financial part of the program was not a tipping point in the discussion to eliminate it, BOCES’ pledge “wasn’t enough of a driving factor given the other considerations.”

Enrollment questions

She reiterated that enrollment ultimately killed technical education: There are currently four students left to “graduate out” of the program next spring, after which time it will be struck from the books. Lam-Pickett said she had heard there were 12 students in the immediate pipeline for the program, enough to potentially keep the program viable.

Edgens said that number was incorrect. He, too, had heard that number. He said it was a combination of lowerclassmen at Casper College and UW who may be on track to enter the technical education program but were not formally enrolled.

But Thompson said that just because students weren’t formally enrolled in the program didn’t mean they hadn’t invested time. He said he knew of at least nine students at Casper College interested; several of them had used scholarship money while underclassmen at the school, waiting to enroll at UW-C and start the program.

“They’ve used their Hathaway (scholarship), they’ve used their scholarship money, money saved, work money, to be at the college – then be told at that point that they need to choose another degree?” Thompson said. “Holy cow. I would be furious to have just lost two years of my Hathaway.”

He stressed that the loss of the program will be a blow to the state, despite what officials may believe.

“It’s just frustrating to see that because I know too many people that are highly successful,” he said, “and they credit their success to having experience in a technical field.”

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Education and Health Reporter

Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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