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Lawmakers Tackle Workforce, STEM and Higher Ed Policy

June 26, 2014

This article is part of SSTI's series on trends in state technology-based economic development legislation in 2014. Read our other entries covering legislative action on patent reform, research capacity, technology commercialization & infrastructure, tax credits & STEM and manufacturing & clusters.

Addressing accessibility, affordability and ensuring workforce preparedness topped legislators’ agendas in many states during the 2014 sessions. States and regions are increasingly competing for talent as the trend toward growing and nurturing innovation ecosystems continues. Attracting and retaining high-tech companies also requires states to have a steady stream of tech-savvy workers. Specifically, policymakers are interested in matching worker skills with industry sectors important to their communities, and many of the efforts put into place during the legislative sessions focus on building long-term relationships between industry and higher education.

Three states, Louisiana, Utah and Wisconsin, dedicated notably large sums of money toward workforce training with a STEM focus.

One of the largest investments was made in Louisiana, where lawmakers approved one-time funding of $40 million in the FY15 budget for an incentive fund that challenges higher education institutions to produce more graduates in high-demand fields through industry partnerships. HB 1033 establishes the Workforce and Innovation for a Stronger Economy (WISE) fund within the state treasury. Colleges and universities competing for the funds are required to secure a private match of at least 20 percent.

A measure approved in Wisconsin similarly aims to better match worker training and educational programming within high-need fields. Gov. Scott Walker signed in March a bill providing $35.4 million to expand the Fast Forward program, which provides grants to technical colleges for reducing waiting lists in certain industries and supports collaborative projects among school districts, technical colleges and businesses.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and lawmakers are working to build a reputation as a statewide leader in STEM education and promote best practices through continued support for the STEM Action Center established last year. This year, lawmakers dedicated $20 million, which includes $15 million in one-time funds and $5 million in ongoing funds, to expand the Center’s mission (see related Digest article).

Expanding scholarship programs to address affordability and close the skills gap was a common approach taken in Alabama, Georgia, New York, and Washington.

Alabama lawmakers approved and Gov. Robert Bentley signed into law HB 384, a measure that sets up a scholarship program through taxpayer-funded donations. Donors receive a state income tax credit up to 50 percent of their tax liability, and can direct up to 80 percent of their donation to a specific training program.

In Georgia, lawmakers passed HB 697 setting up the Zell Miller Scholars grant program to cover full tuition for students with a 3.5 grade point average or better under the state’s HOPE scholarship. The measure funds the gap between what the HOPE grant pays and the full cost of tuition and is aimed at technical college students training for jobs in high-demand fields.

Students graduating in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating class who want to pursue careers in a STEM field are eligible for a full scholarship to any SUNY or CUNY college or university under a new STEM scholarship program established by New York lawmakers. The FY15 budget includes $8 million for the program, which also stipulates that graduates must work in New York for at least five years.

Washington lawmakers in the FY14 supplemental budget boosted by $25 million  a scholarship program to encourage more low- to moderate-income students to study science and tech fields. The Opportunity Scholarship program operates through a public-private funding model. Microsoft and Boeing each contributed $25 million, with a goal is to raise up to $200 million, reports The Seattle Times. With increased funds, the program is offering awards up to $22,500 or a 32 percent increase. Scholarship funding helps students reduce or eliminate the need to take out further loans or allows them to work on unpaid research.

Loan forgiveness for STEM  workers and teachers and incorporating more apprenticeship and internship programs were common themes in Iowa, Indiana, Maryland, and Vermont.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad signed into law an appropriations bill that nearly triples funding for and expands access to apprenticeship and training programs. The bill provides $2.75 million in the upcoming fiscal year for the Apprenticeship Training Program fund. The Economic Development Authority will administer the program and work with community colleges to decide how the money is distributed.

While most actions were geared toward incentivizing students to study STEM fields, lawmakers in Indiana took a different approach. SB 330 creates a loan forgiveness program to attract and retain talented STEM teachers. The program applies to graduates with a 3.5 GPA or higher who teach in STEM fields for at least three years. Only students who graduate in the top 20 percent of their high school graduating class or receive top scores on the ACT or SAT exam are eligible.

A measure aimed at connecting college students with tech firms in Maryland won support with the passage of HB 1317. The purpose is to connect college students, recent grads and veterans with small, innovative businesses in the high-growth technology sector. Funding to compensate businesses for providing the internships was not included in the budget, however. Officials are seeking private funds and plan to lobby the legislature for funds in the coming year.

The Vermont Strong Scholars and Internship Initiative was approved as part of a larger economic development bill and will provide tuition loan forgiveness to graduates who stay in Vermont and work in high-demand fields. Lawmakers also added $250,000 in the FY15 budget to expand internship opportunities.

States grew competitive with promises of free tuition in Tennessee, easier to obtain bachelor degrees in California and STEM designation in Oklahoma.

A proposal floated in several states that would allow students to attend community college for free gained traction in Tennessee this year with the passage of Tennessee Promise. The program, slated to start in the fall of 2015, is designed to allow students to earn an associate's degree at the community and technical colleges or, if they choose, transfer to one of the state's public universities as juniors to complete a full-four year degree – effectively cutting the cost of college in half for participating students. Funding comes through an endowment created from state lottery proceeds. 

Oregon lawmakers passed a bill (SB 1524) to study the viability of a similar program that would allow high school students to attend community college for free.

A bill making its way through the California legislature would allow up to 15 community colleges to offer bachelor degrees. Under the bill, a pilot program would be launched Jan.1 with input from the California State University and University of California systems. Each community college could offer one bachelor’s degree program that is not available at the state’s public four-year institutions. Additionally, college districts must demonstrate an unmet workforce need that the degree program would help fill. SB 850 currently is being considered in the House after recent unanimous passage in the Senate.  

Communities or regions in Oklahoma that create awareness, promote partnerships between schools and industries, and develop and execute action plans for improving STEM education can apply for STEM designation under a bill signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin. The legislation is the outgrowth of a recommendation by the governor’s Science and Technology Council, and is aimed at addressing worker shortage in the STEM fields.

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