Feezell is president of Hastings College, and Hawkins is president of Bellevue University.
The new Nebraska Talent Scholarships program announced recently by Gov. Pete Ricketts shines a light on the critical workforce shortages that all employers and educators in the state are intimately familiar with. As experienced and engaged leaders of Nebraska higher education institutions ourselves, we applaud the announcement — but with one important caveat.
To truly make a positive impact on the Nebraska labor force, we believe that the scholarship program should also invest in students who are learning and attending Nebraska’s 13 independent colleges and universities. Expanding the program to include these institutions would recognize the vital role they play when it comes to addressing the state’s impending workforce crisis.
A recently released report prepared by Goss & Associates details their impact. The report’s major finding is that, collectively, the state’s 13 independent colleges and universities generated $1.43 billion in total economic impact for Nebraska in 2017.
The Council of Independent Nebraska Colleges Foundation includes these not-for-profit, regionally accredited institutions: Bellevue University, Bryan College of Health Sciences, Clarkson College, College of Saint Mary, Concordia University, Creighton University, Doane University, Hastings College, Midland University, Nebraska Methodist College, Nebraska Wesleyan University, Union College and York College.
A hefty portion of that impact is tied directly to the “brain gain” the private colleges achieved. Together, we recruited and enrolled 13,000 students from outside Nebraska, and 52 percent of the graduates are expected to remain in the state after they complete their degree.
Three additional facts highlight the important role independent higher education institutions play in Nebraska. First, in 2017, these institutions as a group reported an increase in graduation rates. According to the Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Post-Secondary Education, the six-year completion rate at four-year independent nonprofit institutions was more than 74 percent in 2018 — more than 12 percent higher than their four-year public counterparts.
By reason, more prepared graduates equates to more skilled and prepared workers ready to enter a job market where unemployment is below 3 percent in every one of the state’s economic regions, and below 4 percent in all but two of Nebraska’s 93 counties. Notably, the independent colleges and universities accounted for 25 percent of higher education students but awarded roughly one-third of all baccalaureate degrees in the state in 2016.
Second, at a time when elected officials are grappling with increasing pressure on an already-taxed state budget, the state’s private colleges and universities save taxpayers money. Simply by delivering on their missions and educating students with little taxpayer support, the independent institutions reduced the financial support that Nebraska taxpayers provided by an estimated $158 million last year.
Third, graduates from Nebraska’s independent colleges and universities are playing major roles in the state’s economic revitalization. Independent college alumni lead mid-state manufacturing companies that export products to 90-plus countries; they are reinventing news media organizations for dual-language audiences; and they are starting and building small businesses into competitive entities with national contracts.
Although diverse in size and approach, Nebraska’s independent colleges consistently demonstrate we can respond quickly to the needs of our vibrant state. Our agility makes us uniquely qualified to tackle the real-life challenges that vex today’s prospective and current students, including the 27 percent who are minorities, the 34 percent who are PELL Grant-eligible, as well as the strong percentage who are first-generation college students.
Solutions such as online learning opportunities, corporate partnerships that open access to education, a reimagining of the traditional college calendar and integrated study abroad programs represent the type of innovations that will transform higher education for current and future generations.
For all of these reasons, we ask the governor to expand the Nebraska Talent Scholarships program to include these private, independent colleges and universities. To more effectively address human resource needs and fill our workforce gaps, viewing the 13 independent colleges and universities as allies and partners and finding ways to utilize their resources to grow Nebraska makes good fiscal and policy sense.