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Point of View: Oklahoma can lead the nation in defining the future of higher education

Lindel Fields
Lindel Fields

There is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has created historic disruption for education systems across America. From the Class of 2020, 22% fewer students nationwide went to college immediately after graduating high school, and the overall immediate college enrollment fell at a rate 10 times greater than the decline between 2018 and 2019.

Community college enrollment also dropped by 9.4%, which is unusual in an economic downturn when adults are more inclined to stay closer to home for advanced education or are pursuing career changes.

In Oklahoma, we believe in the power of continuing education, but it is time we brace for what it means to deliver an affordable, streamlined version that matches the ever-changing demands of the American workforce.

When COVID-19 hit, Tri County Tech quickly moved to establish a program called “Skills to Rebuild” to help retrain adults in industries impacted by the pandemic, such as tourism, to be employable by other industries in high demand, like health care.

What made Skills to Rebuild unique was twofold: immense flexibility for the student by offering the courses at night and in an expedited time frame and tailored programs that matched demand identified in partnership with the local private sector. Gov. Kevin Stitt recognized this venture with $1 million from the Governor’s Emergency Education Fund (GEER), which went directly to the student by waiving all tuition expenses for those who completed the program.

Tri County Tech was flooded with 2,300 applications. More than 540 students were accepted into its specialized programs, with 80% of graduates immediately placed with jobs at an average wage of $12.37 an hour. Of those employed, their new pay equated to an average $6,000 increase in annual household income.

Take for example, Anah who became unemployed when the pandemic hit and came to Tri County Tech to be trained as a CNA. Upon completing her program, she was employed as a PRN making over $16 per hour at a local hospital.

While Tri County has hundreds of stories like Anah, it’s time for Oklahoma’s higher education system to spur tens of thousands more. If there is but one take away from the pandemic for education, it is that we are officially in an age where our workforce will demand continual learners.

In return, higher education should be more stable than ever if we will recognize that nimbleness is paramount. We need certifications and credits to be more transferable, rewarding the continual learner by mounting into opportunities for higher degrees.

Brick and mortar buildings should be thoughtful so that the infrastructure doesn’t reduce affordability for the student and the quality of pay for the educator. Large, private-sector industries should bring colleges and CareerTechs onto their campuses, and virtual education should allow working students to achieve their dreams.

If Oklahoma leaders will focus on breaking down silos and making higher education more affordable to the students and collaborative with the private sector, we will lead the nation in a revival of enrollment and a recovering economy marked with stable growth.

Lindel Fields is the CEO and superintendent of Tri County Tech and a board member of the Oklahoma State Chamber.