Incentive program for Kansas tech education paying off

A new state program that pays students’ tuition to help them pursue a technical education is getting glowing reviews from students and leaders alike.

Under legislation passed in 2012, Kansas pays tuition for students who learn technical skills during their junior and senior years of high school. The students spend part of their school day in typical high school classes and the rest attending technical or community colleges to learn skills such as graphic design, welding or nursing assistance.

The program has been a hit early on, with the number of high school students taking such courses at the state’s 26 community or technical colleges increasing from 3,870 students to 5,800 last year, which was the initiative’s first. The numbers are expected to increase again this year.

Last year, the state paid $12 million in tuition, which school administrators and officials at the Kansas Board of Regents and Kansas State Department of Education say is money well spent.

“It’s a great initiative to help students,” said Blake Flanders, vice president for workforce development at the Kansas Board of Regents, “but it also helps Kansas employers.”

The program helps students learn a job skill while helping address workforce shortages in many fields, he said.

The regents worked with the Kansas Department of Labor to determine high-demand industries they hope students will consider. High school students can earn industry certificates before leaving school for many of the jobs in those industries, such as electricians, diesel engine experts, carpenters and heating mechanics.

High schools also profit, getting an extra $1,000 in state funds for each student who earns a certificate. Statewide, 711 students earned the certificate last year, with most training for the health industry.

Clark Coco, dean of Washburn Institute of Technology, said his school has doubled the size of its diesel program and more than doubled its heath care program.

Students say the choice to miss time at their own high schools to pursue technical training is worth it.

“It’s a fair trade-off,” said Engsean Lee, a junior at Washburn Rural High who is studying graphic design. “It’s good to be able to afford college.”

This year, Lee will learn to use software like Photoshop and InDesign and in his senior year, he will work directly with clients to design promotional materials and other products.