In 2004, community leaders developed a strategic plan to further establish Wichita as a “College Mecca” – a city known for excellent higher education institutions, attracting the best and brightest students from across the country and the world. Those leaders recognized that the key to a diverse and vibrant economy is an educated and highly skilled workforce.
“There is a plethora of research that shows a direct correlation between education attainment and economic well-being,” says Dr. Jackie Vietti, president emeritus of Butler Community College. “We have the rich resource of 17 institutions of higher education within a 60-mile radius working together to boost education levels, which is a wonderful way to develop the economy.”
Collaboration Over Competition
While president of BCC, Vietti spearheaded the college’s involvement in Achieve Kansas, a partnership between the metro area’s colleges and universities, local businesses and the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. The group works to increase the graduation and certificate achievement rates in the region by targeting working adults who had some college hours but not a certificate or degree, Vietti says.
Participating businesses allow Achieve Kansas to survey their employees to identify those workers interested in completing a degree or certificate program. The group then assigns an Achieve Kansas coach to work with those individuals to identify programs of interest, address any barriers to entry and then direct that employee to the most appropriate institution.
Achieve Kansas is an example of the collaboration between institutions to ensure the region’s workforce is prepared for an economy quickly transitioning from manufacturing to technology and engineering.
“We’re a community that loves engineers. We like to make things. We’re very good at it. We’re very exacting. We’re also in the process of transitioning our economy and diversifying it, so all of these things have to be played together,” says Suzie Ahlstrand, executive vice president of community development for the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce.
STEM-ulating the Economy
Known internationally for its engineering program, Wichita State University is taking additional steps to ensure the region’s future workforce is ready to meet the demands of a high-tech economy.
“If you look at what’s happening with the structure of the economy, the vast majority of new jobs in the United States are coming in technology-based startups, and it becomes clear that technology and science are going to be the core drivers along with entrepreneurship. What we’re attempting to do is to get enough local students interested [in STEM-related subjects] to be able to take advantage of those changes in the economy,” says Dr. John Bardo, president of Wichita State University.
The university has a long history of working with local school districts to encourage young students to pursue education and careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. The university hosts STEM-related activities on campus, including robotics competitions and science fairs, and was recently awarded a grant to create programs that encourage students to major in areas that are particularly useful to the economy.
WSU is also in the early stages of developing an Innovation Campus oriented toward science and technology startups.
Readying the Workforce
Administrators at Butler Community College and Newman University also recognize the region’s economic trending toward jobs in technology and science, particularly in the field of information technology.
BCC partners with Butler County schools to offer high school juniors and seniors dual college and high school credits through its IT Academy. It also operates a technology studio in partnership with Exploration Place equipped with educational software and programming, along with a downtown site in partnership with High Tech Technologies that offers basic computer training to workers who need it.
The college is also teaming up with Bethany College's MindFire Academy to allow students to obtain credits toward a bachelor's degree in digital and media arts, with a focus in digital filmmaking or 3D animation.
Newman University recently received a $2.5 million private donation to springboard efforts to build a new science building equipped with state-of-the-art laboratories and lecture halls for its growing chemistry, physics and biology programs.
Wichita Area Technical College (WATC) offers numerous workforce-aligned programs in aviation technology and other areas, and meeting the rising need for doctors in the area is the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita, a four-year program that continues to expand and grow in enrollment.
Learn more about schools in Wichita.