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Casper College

A student walks between classes on the campus of Casper College on Tuesday. A bill sponsored by Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, seeks to allow community colleges around the state to offer bachelor's degrees.

CHEYENNE — Despite pushback from top officials at the University of Wyoming, the Senate Education Committee moved forward Friday with a bill that would allow community colleges across the state to offer bachelors of applied science degrees on their campuses.

Sponsored by Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, the legislation seeks to fulfill a long-held desire in communities around the state for advanced technical education degrees closer to home, the type that has so far been offered only through the University of Wyoming.

UW, however, has opposed the bill, saying it would undermine the university’s efforts to create a pipeline from the community colleges into the school’s programs, create redundancies in the state’s public education offerings and overrule UW’s attempts to offer remote learning on the state’s seven community college campuses. However, representatives for the community colleges in attendance Friday argued that those offerings were insufficient and, if the bill were to pass, the community colleges would not be in competition with the university.

After testimony from UW President Laurie Nichols pushing back against the bill, Nethercott answered back, noting that the bill’s intent was not to create competition or undercut the mission of the university but to answer a pressing need for a skilled workforce outlined in the state’s economic development goals.

“This seems like a lack of understanding,” Nethercott said. “If you listen to the opposition, which comes from one source, we heard the word ‘change.’ This is about a fear of change.”

Many who spoke in favor of the bill argued that community colleges, in many cases, were often better suited to offer B.A.S. degrees, the follow-on degrees for the otherwise terminal A.A.S. vocational degrees offered in community colleges. Community colleges in 23 other states already offer some form of a bachelor’s degree and, though UW offers a B.A.S. degree in its course offerings, it is “not viable” for most of the state’s workforce, several testified Friday.

The lack of viable B.A.S. offerings statewide — and the distance of UW’s campus from other communities across the state — has prevented Wyoming from building up its workforce, according to talking points a representative for Central Wyoming College read at Friday’s meeting. According to that memo, Wyoming currently ranks 48th in the nation for the number of bachelor’s degrees produced per 1,000 residents. Because of this, according to Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Dale Steenbergen, many employers looking to relocate to Wyoming have been reluctant to make the plunge due to the state’s lack of a skilled and educated workforce.

The reason for the shortage? A lack of access to the type of education residents need at a lower price than the degrees offered at the state’s flagship university, supporters of the bill say.

“What you’ve heard from the community colleges and members of the community is they are looking for on-the-ground training in their communities,” Nethercott said. “Zoom Technology (video conferencing software used for remote learning) isn’t the infrastructure we need for hands-on programming that is needed in our communities for economic development that only the community colleges can provide.”

The bill passed 4-1, with Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, voting against it, arguing that though he supported the aim of the bill, the topic should be discussed in the interim.

“It would be, as an interim topic, the highest priority of the committee to make sure the university and the colleges work together with us as a committee to come up with legislation that may be identical to this or somewhat different but produces a product that everyone is on board with,” Rothfuss said.

“We’ve done great things in recent years where we’ve brought the university together with the colleges, and we’ve put the onus on them to coordinate and collaborate — we asked for that and harassed the heck out of everyone saying, ‘Coordinate this. Come together. Don’t separate and go in separate directions,’” he added. “This is effectively eliminating that collaboration and allowing the colleges to go off in their own direction in a way that is antithetical to what we’ve been doing as a committee.”

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As the bill was discussed on the floor of the Senate for the first time Friday afternoon, Rothfuss noted that the bill did not account for the fact implementing new curricula — which would still need to be approved by a college’s board of trustees — might require the hiring of new staff and may need more consideration.

However, many of those to testify in a cramped meeting room Friday morning — including several community college presidents and economic development officials — said that the time was now and, if passed, the legislation would do nothing more than allow them to offer the same types of specialized degrees they already offer.

The bill would also improve educational prospects for those in the most far-flung and underserved areas of the state, proponents argued. Rep. Sandy Newsome, R-Cody, and economic development officials from nearby Powell were in attendance to support the bill, noting that their location six hours away from Laramie made it difficult for residents to access hands-on, on-the-ground training.

Rep. Andi Clifford, D-Riverton, said that numerous people on the Wind River Reservation in her district currently had significant barriers in accessing technical education. In a letter to legislators from members of the Wind River Inter-Tribal Council, Chairmen Leslie Shakespeare of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council and Lee Spoonhunter of the Northern Arapaho said the availability of a B.A.S. degree at nearby Central Wyoming College would allow tribal members to “advance themselves and our tribes” on a face-to-face basis — something CWC President Brad Tyndall said was culturally important to tribal members.

Fulfilling communities’ desire for the legislature to do something for the state’s workforce now — rather than later — said Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, accounted for much of his motivation to vote “yes” on the bill.

“I represent a community that has fought for opportunities since 1940,” he said. “I can remember in 1976 coming to this legislature to lobby for opportunity like this. That’s a long time ago — we rode horses to school.

“My community has dug and scratched and clawed to try and get opportunity for all those years,” he added. “We can certainly draw this out some more, but I think it’s time to try something different and new and respond to our businesses. I’m ready.”

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Politics Reporter

Nick Reynolds covers state politics and policy. A native of Central New York, he has spent his career covering governments big and small, and several Congressional campaigns. He graduated from the State University of New York at Brockport in 2015.

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