Randy ShumwayI recently attended graduation ceremonies at a technology college. As the stream of proud graduates walked across the stage, I was caught off guard by the depth of emotion I felt as I witnessed the conspicuous enthusiasm and sense of accomplishment the families and graduates exhibited in response to their achievement.

Many of those crossing the stage were older. There were more females than males.  There was tremendous ethnic diversity. I soon learned that many graduates were single parents, while others were returning to school after raising a family. And I’m certain that a great many of them have experienced and overcome challenges I’ve never remotely approached. I was deeply moved by what I saw, heard, and experienced that evening. 

Subsequent to the ceremony, I was privileged to visit with several of the graduates. English is Johnny’s second language. He has three young children and worked full-time in the evenings as a CNA while attending a rigorous nursing program during the daytime. He studied on the weekends and in the few remaining waking hours he had available. April is a single mother with two young children. Her mother moved in with her in order to help with the children while April spent 60 hours a week attending class, labs, clinicals, and studying while also working another 40 hours a week. These were simply two of the life changing stories I heard – from wounded veterans to first-time generation college attendees to rehabilitated felons. 

What so many of these students achieved in their education and training was not easy.  But what they gained as they sacrificed beyond the requirements of their programs has reinforced their tenacity, empathy, and strength. Combined with their new technical skills, these characteristics empower graduates with unique knowledge and capability that will enrich their lives, their families, and our society as a whole. 

Each year, Idaho’s technical and community colleges award more than 4,000 Associate degrees or certificates to graduates in a range of programs across the state. This year, nearly 30 percent of these graduates were over the age of 30. Almost 30 percent were ethnic minorities and 60 percent were female. Some graduates will go on to a four-year university, and others will immediately enter the workforce with enhanced skills that will benefit them for a lifetime. 

Because higher education has such a substantive effect on economic and social good—not to mention the impact it has on individuals and families—Governor Otter has set an ambitious vision that 60 percent of Idahoans age 25 to 34 will achieve some kind of post-secondary education by 2020. This goal will require innovation, collaboration, and investment in our colleges. Two specific changes will be of significant value in achieving this goal, and in expanding access to the benefits of higher education in our state: 1) boosting resources to help technical and community colleges identify, reach out to, and enroll prospective students, and 2) defining a clearer path for transferring credits to four-year schools.

First, although our technical and community colleges provide extraordinary value for individuals and families, these schools often function with more limited resources than four-year institutions. This particularly affects their capacity to broadly market themselves and connect with members of the community whose lives would benefit from the programs they offer. As a state, we must allocate greater resources and support to these schools in reaching out to potential students. Successful outreach programs will show potential students what opportunities are available at these schools and how to access them. 

Second, students who choose to go on to study at four year universities will get greater value from their technical and community education, and will be more likely to enjoy the full benefits higher education can provide them, if they can transfer credits efficiently. In fact, students who can transfer most of their community college credits are almost three times more likely to earn a four-year degree than students who can transfer fewer than half of their credits. To realize the full benefits of higher education, we must continue to expand pathways to enable technical and community college graduates to hit the ground running at a four-year university.  

By enriching resources for outreach and clarifying the path for credit transfer and acceptance, we will support our state’s goal to boost higher education rates. As I personally witnessed the capabilities, dedication, and momentum of these new graduates, I could see clearly the immeasurable impact—societal, familial and personal—of this education. For many graduates, their lives and the lives of future generations have been categorically changed.