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One of the greatest challenges facing the state of Nebraska is the lack of people. Particularly, the lack of skilled workers needed to fill the trades and mid-level jobs from Omaha and Lincoln to Scottsbluff and Alliance.

The out-migration of people in Nebraska that occurred after the farm crisis of the 1980s decimated rural communities and “horseshoed” around population centers in the eastern third of the state. Aging baby boomers have now created the next great wave of out-migration from Nebraska, leaving skilled positions open and unfilled at a time when economic expansion is occurring.

We have the opportunity to make the good life of Nebraska better for our future generations, but we must do things differently. While I applaud the efforts of Blueprint Nebraska to create a plan for economic prosperity, there are some immediate changes that can occur now.

First, we must stop thinking of education (K-12, community colleges, and four-year institutions) as separate, unrelated entities. We should think of education in the state being vertically connected. Community colleges should be working with middle and high schools to expose students and parents to skilled jobs in career and technical education. Prime examples include community colleges working with middle school career fairs, career testing and guidance counselors, in addition to the implementation of high school career academies and community college guided pathways.

Employers and schools must work together to find, educate and retain a skilled workforce for our current and future jobs. Employers offering job shadowing, job awareness, internships and apprenticeships should be commended for helping educate and recruit talented and interested students.

Second, the University of Nebraska and Nebraska State College System should unconditionally accept the associate degree from every Nebraska community college. This approach toward earning a four-year degree is commonly referred as 2+2. An interesting fact -- more than 50 percent of students who have completed a four-year degree in Nebraska have taken and successfully completed a community college course.

Other states -- including North Carolina, Florida and Iowa -- have created procedures and processes to guarantee admission from two-year to four-year institutions of higher education. This will allow for the smooth and successful transition of more students, while saving taxpayer and students’ money and accelerating the completion of students into the workforce. Students who start at community colleges are more likely to stay in state, have less debt and return to their hometowns.

While community college leaders and the University of Nebraska have recently made great strides in helping students with the transfer process, we still see roadblocks and obstacles for students who want to transfer in-state. Addressing these roadblocks would make possible “seamless” educational opportunities across higher education institutions for Nebraska, such as improving retention, graduation rates and time to degree while lowering taxpayer liability. Students with at least 60 credits of transferable hours and a 2.00 cumulative grade-point average would meet the general education requirement.

Third, four-year institutions of higher education in Nebraska should implement an automatic reverse transfer process. Many students leave community colleges without completing their associate degree and transfer on to four-year institutions of higher education.

When students complete 15 to 18 credits at a four-year institution, those institutions can automatically send back acknowledgement of course completion to the student’s community college known as reverse transfer. Reverse transfer increases student retention and graduation rates and acknowledges the work they have completed and credentials they need to enter the workforce.

By vertically integrating education, unconditionally accepting the associate degree at four-year institutions, and implementing automated reverse transfer, we can grow Nebraska and meet our demographic challenges. Only by breaking down silos and clearing barriers that stand in our way can we achieve the economic vitality to position Nebraska for the next century.

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Todd R. Holcomb is the president of Scottsbluff-based Western Nebraska Community College.

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