Wyoming voters will be electing a new governor in November. Where that newly elected governor stands on higher education will impact the citizens of Wyoming. Mary Throne, the Democratic candidate; Mark Gordon, the Republican candidate; and Lawrence Struempf, the Libertarian candidate, all have their own platforms, but they share some views on how to best approach higher education in the Cowboy State.
Funding for higher education
All three candidates feel that it is imperative to find a reliable and constant source of funding for higher education in Wyoming.
She said funding within the state is one of the core reasons she is running for governor.
“Fundamentally, I got into this race because in order to find funding for all of our government needs, including higher education, we just have to have an honest discussion about how we’re going to pay for things going forward. Coal, oil and natural gas pay for practically everything we do in the state of Wyoming, and they go up and down and that’s not sustainable over the long term. That’s just the reality,” she said.
Throne points to a few options for more immediate solutions before large-scale funding reform takes place. Wyoming’s industrial and commercial property taxes are among the lowest in the nation. Throne suggests taking a look at raising those taxes. She says there is also the possibility of tapping into Wyoming’s second largest industry, tourism, and imposing a leisure tax for revenue. Lastly, she suggests giving local governments more flexibility in raising their own revenue.
“The best way to fund higher education in Wyoming is with a dependable revenue stream, so that the most important components of education can be assured that they have the income year over year. Straightforwardly, the central mission of education needs to have dependable funding streams,” he said.
“The best way to ensure funding for education is to support businesses and economic growth,” Struempf said. “It looks like the energy sector is recovering a lot, so when you say about funding it, a lot of it is about ensuring we have revenue in the future. If we don’t have revenue, we have to cut costs everywhere, cut spending. So, the natural gas, oil and coal futures actually look really good right now, compared to a year or two ago. But it’s critical that we also seek and grow new industries and diversify our income so that we’re not so dependent on our historical revenue chain,” he said.
He mentioned three revenue sources he has been looking into for solutions to long-term revenue in Wyoming: wind power, cyber security, and data centers.
Struempf recognized the Hathaway Scholarship program as a good way for Wyoming high school graduates to fund their higher education. “The Hathaway is just incredible, so most of the high school students who do well should have at least four years of tuition paid for, which is a really great option,” he said.
“When you look at funding anything, you have to look at the big picture, you can’t just look at one component, so I kind of group education as a whole together. So, K-12 and higher education are all critical. Without quality education, both K-12 and post-secondary education, we will not be able to have the workforce that’s needed to bring industries and jobs to Wyoming. So, it’s really a huge investment in our future,” he said.
What role can community colleges play in diversifying Wyoming’s economy?
All candidates feel that community colleges play a vital role in diversifying Wyoming’s economy.
“I think they’re critical in workforce training. Not everybody needs a four-year degree. There are a lot of two-year certificates available that can add to our economy,” she said.
Throne stresses that community colleges and the University of Wyoming should work cohesively and avoid competition among one another.
He said that community colleges are essential to diversification of the economy in Wyoming. He said they are great way to engage the communities of Wyoming in workforce training.
“I think community colleges can be very responsive to a wide variety of skills that are going to continually evolve over time. It seems to me that education is starting to change a little bit, that people are starting to seek certificates for proficiencies in x, y, and z. So, having a community college platform that allows for that to happen easily and accessibly is absolutely critical,” Gordon said. “I think it’s a wonderful gateway for those who want to go on to a four-year university or master’s program.”
He is especially enthusiastic about how community colleges can help expand technical industries, such as wind power, in Wyoming.
“It’s really important that we focus on getting more of our population, more of our students to graduate high school, and more of them to get college degrees, and with that, community colleges are critical. To get a degree doesn’t mean that they have to get a bachelor’s degree. We could get more and more community college technical degrees, like wind power maintenance, and building degrees,” he said.
“The community college is such a multi-faceted system, that it is needed very much for the continuing student that goes from high school to community college to get their associate degree, and then moves on to get their bachelors, and masters or doctorate. It’s also needed for those students who don’t want to get their bachelors, and get a wind technology or computer information systems associates, or an entrepreneur associate, where they can just go right out and start working and supporting their family,” he said.
Struempf also said he supports a movement he feels is going to be nationwide, in which high school juniors and seniors begin taking courses through community colleges that can be applied toward an associate degree.
What impact can ENDOW have in Wyoming’s future?
The three candidates have different views on the work of the ENDOW council in Wyoming, but all expressed that it’s a good jumping off point to look at economic diversity in the state.
In reference to her thoughts on the ENDOW council, Throne pointed out that when elected to public office candidates come into service “in the middle of the story,” and they must build on existing structures and processes.
“I like the spirit of ENDOW, I particularly admire the spirit of ENGAGE,” she said.
ENGAGE is a branch of ENDOW dedicated to encouraging Wyoming’s younger residents to participate in the shaping of Wyoming’s economic future.
“I’ve always said, ‘we need ENDOW now.’ Some of its aspirations are a little too far down the road,” she said. She emphasized that while the council is doing good work, elected officials should not outsource decisions to an outside council. She said the right leadership is needed to sift through the best ideas and make them happen.
He said that the work of the ENDOW council is a good jumping off point, but that Wyoming’s economic development initiatives can be better focused and easier to navigate.
“I think ENDOW has started raising some really good points and started a really important conversation for the state. I think it can get refined a little bit,” he said.
Gordon also mentions the work of ENGAGE and how including a mix of people with various talents can be beneficial to the council’s overall goals.
He thinks the ENDOW council needs to join forces with the Wyoming Business Council to work to implement some of its ideas.
“I like ENDOW, what they’re doing, they’re overlapping a bit with the Wyoming Business Council. They’re more of a think tank to come up with new ideas, and they’ve had a lot of good ideas,” he said.
What does the University of Wyoming’s record freshman class means for the future?
This fall the University of Wyoming set a record for the most first-time freshman enrolled in the university’s history. The candidates differ on what they feel the record class means for the future of higher education in Wyoming.
She expressed concern that while UW’s numbers have gone up, community college enrollment numbers have decreased. She raised the possibility that the university enrollment was bolstered to the detriment of the community colleges.
“We have to help all of these institutions pursue their missions, and not one at the expense of the other,” she said.
He is enthusiastic about UW’s record freshman class.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “I think making sure that those freshmen finish out their college careers is important for the state.”
He said that growing enrollment will create a need for more classrooms, educational content, teachers, and facilities.
The record enrollment comes as no surprise to Struempf. He feels that all of the improvements made to the UW campus in the last decade would be attractive to many students looking for a university to attend.
“I can’t imagine anyone in the United States not wanting to come to the University of Wyoming,” he said.
What can Wyoming do to better retain recent college graduates?
The candidates share some views on how Wyoming can better retain college graduates from the University of Wyoming and community colleges. All three feel that providing opportunities and jobs for recent graduates is the best way to keep them in Wyoming.
She recognizes that people want nice places to live. She said Wyoming should do more to promote the vast outdoor recreation activities available to residents.
“We have world-class outdoor recreation opportunities, we need to promote those. That will also create economic opportunity,” said Throne. “We need to advertise Wyoming as a great place to live and have a family, and not just a place to visit.”
She also said Wyoming should ensure that all communities, particularly the smaller communities have access to broadband connectivity.
“I don’t think our smaller, rural communities can survive without better access to broadband. It creates opportunities for agriculture. It allows people to live in smaller communities and telecommute,” she said.
He said the best way to keep Wyoming’s college graduates in the state is to make sure we have a strong education system.
“I have said, I think the largest component of retaining our workforce is really going to come around to having a robust educational system, really K-12 all the way through. If you’re a young family, what better place to raise a family than in a place like Wyoming? You have all that great outdoor stuff, and you have communities that are accessible,” he said.
He said graduates who grew up in Wyoming understand what the state has to offer.
“Wyoming is beautiful, if you grow up here, you really want to stay here. But we have to make sure there are quality jobs in Wyoming, and of course creating more opportunities for businesses to grow or start up in Wyoming. So we need more entrepreneurs to create new businesses in Wyoming,” he said.
“I still believe the reason that most of the students that leave Wyoming, if just because they want to see the world before they settle down, but I believe many of them end up returning to Wyoming,” said Struempf. “They get so much knowledge and experience in other parts of the world and other industries and then they bring that knowledge and skills back to Wyoming. So, I think it’s a good thing.”
What sort of industries should Wyoming aim to grow to retain and attract a skilled and competitive workforce?
The candidates all feel that Wyoming needs to expand certain industries to better retain graduates from Wyoming colleges and attract graduates from elsewhere.
“I don’t think there is going to be one big thing that comes in, there will probably be a lot of little things,” she said.
She mentions technology, manufacturing, health care, value-added industry with the mineral sector, and apprenticeships all as industries that can be expanded in Wyoming to create better opportunities for graduates from Wyoming’s colleges.
“It’s somewhat of a chicken and an egg problem, because a lot of businesses say we don’t have enough work force. Yet, it’s hard to develop the workforce when you don’t have the employers to hire the workforce,” she said.
He said there are many existing industries in Wyoming that can be expanded to become more competitive.
“I think when you’re talking about how do we develop jobs, there are some that are screaming for want,” he said.
He mentions the health-care industry, the energy sector, trades, and the tourism industry as possible industries to expand in Wyoming to retain college graduates.
“You have to grow your economy and make it more attractive than your competitors’. It’s all about competition in my mind. You have to make your economy a better place to build businesses. That’s been a major tenant of mine, is making it easier and more efficient to do business in Wyoming,” he said.
He said he would like to see some specific industries expanded within Wyoming to provide better opportunities for college students and graduates: wind power and technology-based companies.
“Wyoming is one of the few states in the nation that does not have a renewable energy portfolio. We are number four in the nation for our wind power ability or desirability for producers; we are one of the least friendly on our policies. So we need to work harder,” he said.
Struempf said that expanding wind energy in Wyoming could provide thousands of jobs. He said Wyoming should try to bring more technology-based companies to increase job opportunities and revenue.
“There are so many people who would like nothing more than to live here. We have to create those opportunities, and it’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to happen overnight, and there’s not one magic solution that is going to make it happen. But we know certain things. We know that having a good public education system is crucial to attracting young families, and Wyoming has a good public education system, not perfect, but good. We need to support it and enhance it and maintain a quality system.”
“I think this is a real watershed moment for Wyoming in many ways, because we are in transition in a lot of ways. We are blessed to have the resources we do. Done right, Wyoming has an unbelievably bright future,” he said.
“We have a really great education system,” he said. “It is so important that we take care of it and the students, because if we lose our education base, then we will not be attractive to any businesses.”