By 2020, more than 60 percent of Georgia jobs will require some form of postsecondary education or training.
That information from the governor’s office is the basis of a recently developed task force by University of North Georgia leaders with the purpose of bringing together other significant players in education, regional businesses and communities.
In its infancy, the North Georgia Regional Economic and Education Development Task Force is in the process of collecting information and ideas in an effort to increase the number of area residents who have some form of postsecondary education, whether it’s certification, a two-year degree or a more traditional four-year diploma.
“I think it’s increasingly valuable,” said Janet Marling, executive director of the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students at UNG. “As institutes of higher education, we’re responding to the need of industry in our areas. We’re really tasked in making certain we are preparing students adequately for jobs in our areas.”
While not officially part of Gov. Nathan Deal’s Complete College Georgia plan, it works hand-in-hand with the ideas set forth, Marling said.
Georgia is one of several states to have joined with the Complete College America initiative, which has the goal of ensuring that students who enter college, or some form of postsecondary education, will complete the program. According to the website completecollege.org, “just over half of students who start four-year bachelor’s degree programs full-time finish in six years.”
The ideas and suggestions discussed at these initial meetings will be presented in a September summit, along with proposals for steps moving forward. REED meetings were held in Blairsville, Gainesville and Oconee, with the goal of adequately covering Northeast Georgia.
“Just for the first two meetings, we’ve gotten very good information and we were already beginning to see differences, at least between the first two regions,” said Bob Michael, dean of the UNG College of Education. “There’s some very interesting similarities, but there’s very clear differences.”
Marling said that common themes involve communities wanting college graduates to remain and work in the area.
“There’s also a strong sense of pride in just the natural beauty of our region, and being able to capitalize on that and help people to work within that ecosystem, if you will,” Marling said. “We do have a special place in the state.”
Brenau University’s Robert Shippey was in attendance at the June 27 Gainesville meeting. He spoke about the importance of not only training students in specific fields, but also in providing a well-rounded education involving liberal arts.
“I think as long as we keep all of those dimensions of the educational opportunity in mind, the collaboration really can bring a great deal of value,” he said.
He did express disappointment that there was not more representation for area business leaders.
“I feel like for this conversation to really take hold, it’s going to require more than North Georgia and Brenau having a conversation with each other,” he said. “Executives from the various industries are going to have to come to the table, too, and talk about their investment in the community and how they can collaborate with educational entities, particularly postsecondary entities, to create a more meaningful learning environment and work environment.”
At the Gainesville meeting, there was a variety of people representing education and nonprofits, while businesses were represented in smaller numbers.
These meetings are just the first step. Certain obstacles remain in place, one being that some smaller communities may not have the businesses to attract and retain an educated workforce. Shippey said that’s all the more reason why businesses need to be present.
“They need to invest not only in the profit margin, the bottom line for their company, but in the very things that made this an attractive region for them in the first place,” he said. “They have a responsibility to work with the community and the community leaders to continue to attract different types of businesses.”
There is also a concern, with budgets regularly being cut, whether the institutions have what’s necessary to accommodate an influx of students. Marling pointed out that is why these meetings are so important, so that people can come together and see what resources are available to be shared.
“When you talk about a tight economy and reduced resources, that equals to an increased dependence on relationships and partnerships,” she said.
Michael agreed. “We’ve had to be very creative and realize that we cannot rely on the past models of funding higher education,” he said.
The goal is increasing college completion rates. Numbers provided at the meeting state that approximately 1.2 million Georgians have some college but no degree, and around 1 million have no education experience beyond high school.
At the Gainesville meeting, Marling said there are many different factors involved a student’s progress, but she attributed a lot of it simply to circumstances.
“Life happens,” she said. “Students are one life experience from dropping out. Life happens, and we need to figure out how to help our citizenry enter, exit, enter, exit. That’s just the reality of things these days.”