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State needs college grads, experts say

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Education leaders met Wednesday to discuss how to better prepare students for life after high school -- stressing the importance of college graduates on the state's economy.

This year's West Virginia ACT conference focused on providing high school students with college-level courses and post-secondary skills before they graduate so that they're more likely to continue their education.

"When you have a student that spends up to a year in college paying tuition for remedial classes in order to start their education, you have a recipe for disaster," said Keith Burdette, state Commerce Secretary. "If we don't figure out a way to fix it, we're in big trouble.

In West Virginia, only 27 percent of students who have to take remedial classes in college earn a degree within six years. In comparison, students who do not require those transitional classes graduate at a rate of 56 percent.

Wednesday's conference panel, which also featured Paul Hill, chancellor of the state Higher Education Policy Commission, James Skidmore, chancellor of the state Council for Community and Technical College Education and Jim Phares, state superintendent of schools, didn't solely focus on getting students to enroll in college, though.

The state officials agreed that more than ever, now is the time to focus on the importance of middle-skill jobs and provide adequate training at career and technical centers across the state.

By 2018, the number of jobs in West Virginia that demand a college degree will increase by 20,000, while nearly half of all jobs will require some sort of postsecondary training, according to the HEPC.

Now, only 17 out of every 100 ninth-graders in West Virginia will earn an associate's degree or bachelor's degree, according to Hill.

"We have a lot of first-generation students throughout the state, and we've got to encourage those students to aspire to a postsecondary education. That is so important for a better quality life," he said. "We need to increase awareness that education is the primary vehicle to rise above the barriers in order to achieve dreams, no matter how big or small."

With economic opportunities on the horizon, Burdette stressed the need for more qualified in-state professionals, pointing to the state's energy production capabilities.

"I work a lot with companies that come to West Virginia and they love West Virginia workers. They think they're loyal and have a strong work ethic. But, they don't have a lot of confidence in our bench because they're afraid it doesn't run deep enough," he said. "That concerns me because we are very much on the cusp of an economic opportunity that we haven't seen in our lifetime.

"But, if we don't have the people to do the job, we're going to have a hard time in this state," he said. 

Phares said the state Board of Education has a special focus on career and technical pathways and plans to embed math and English credits into those students' curriculum as early as next year.

The state board has also teamed up with the Southern Regional Education Board to pilot preparatory programs that focus on energy and power courses. The state is also eyeing alternative power and informatics programs currently used in South Carolina and Kentucky.

Informatics is the practice of information processing, or the science of processing data for storage and retrieval.

"People keep saying these are new initiatives, but they aren't. We forget what it is that we do. Our common goal has always been about vocational education. The reason that kids go to school is so that when they get on the other end, they can get a job," Phares said. "So, these things that we're calling new initiatives are actually just reactions to the way the world is changing around us."

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.

 


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