Over the past decade, several dynamics have combined to drive secondary and higher education in a particular direction: the need for skilled workers among employers; the newfound focus on STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — due largely to the vast possibilities created by computer and communications technology; and the ever-growing cost of a college education.
In New Hampshire, we might add demographics. The state’s aging population, causing more skilled workers to age out of the job market, and the dearth of births in what is now the teen and young adult age group have combined to put enrollment pressure on colleges and workforce pressure on businesses.
It’s no wonder, then, that the area has seen a strong uptick in partnerships aimed at workforce training. From the growth of high school career centers, internships and school-to-work programs to the development of new academic programs, funneling students toward the right program to ready them for employment has become a priority.
Keene State College has been involved in several of these efforts. It’s developed new areas of study and strengthened others — such as workplace safety; technology, engineering and design; and nursing. It’s partnered with area community colleges to smooth the transition for students from one level to the next, even welcoming River Valley Community College’s Keene operation to its campus.
Now, Keene State has struck articulation deals with career centers across the state to give up to eight credits to students in a variety of programs who enroll at the college. It’s a sensible idea both for the students and the college.
Career centers, such as those housed at Keene High, ConVal and Fall Mountain, are not just an alternative path for those students who aren’t likely to go on to college. They may have been that once, but they now have stricter academic standards and offer a wider variety of options, many of which do lead to higher education. For those students who know early on what career they want to pursue, getting a leg up on college while still in high school is a plus, especially in reducing the cost of higher education.
At the same time, Keene State is still struggling to regain lost enrollment, and drawing students from career centers is an example of the kind of outside-the-box thinking the institution needs. Some of these students may have eyed the college anyway, but this partnership gives them further incentive to commit to Keene State.
The agreement covers students studying in quite a few areas, including education, engineering, business, construction trades, computer science and horticulture. But students looking toward a course of study in other areas can use the program to gain credits in their majors as well. It’s in part a reflection of the education in those fields that students are getting, pre-college, that Keene State sees as worth crediting.
Workforce training certainly isn’t the lone objective of higher education, even in today’s economy. There’s much to be said for the well-rounded, critical-thinking skills accrued through liberal arts study. But there’s no doubt workers with specific skills are in demand, and for many young people, training in growth fields makes sense.
Partnerships between secondary and higher educational schools — or between those entities and businesses or among colleges — ought to help lessen the cost of an education for students while opening new streams of potential enrollment, strengthening the institutions.