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Another Voice: Western New York students should focus on STEM education

By Michelle Kavanaugh

As students, parents and counselors pursue the arduous task of college applications and financial aid, new trends in funding are making headlines.

A host of national and state proposals were announced recently in support of free tuition and college loan forgiveness. Along with the president, leaders in Tennessee, Mississippi and Oregon laid groundwork for free community college tuition. In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposed student loan forgiveness and free SUNY/CUNY tuition for top graduate-level candidates who commit to teaching in New York State for at least five years.

Of significance are national and state recommendations to link college to high-demand jobs in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) and to encourage private-public partnerships to this end. For example, the president called on private sector employers to increase education benefits and provide more paid apprenticeships in high-tech careers. In addition, a new American Technology Training Fund would strengthen employer partnerships for work-based learning in energy, IT and advanced manufacturing.

As the regional economy grows, filling new high-demand jobs in STEM fields will become critical to sustaining economic success. John Slenker, regional analyst for the Department of Labor, indicates that the average local STEM worker makes $67,000 annually compared to non-STEM workers at an average of $39,000. And, a congressional report continues to project STEM jobs growing by 17 percent through 2020.

Examples of promising education incentive models for college already exist for many local students. Say Yes Buffalo is providing free scholarships to Buffalo students from public and charter high schools planning to attend SUNY/CUNY and private partner colleges. While the first cohort of scholarship recipients graduated high school in 2013, early reports show an impressive jump in post-secondary enrollment.

Also relevant is a new SUNY STEM Incentive Program that is providing full tuition SUNY/CUNY scholarships to high-achieving students pursuing a two-year or four-year degree and willing to remain in the state in a STEM job for five years after graduation. Some 653 students were in the first cohort entering college for the 2014-15 year. A SUNY report shows that just 8 percent of those recipients came from all five Western New York counties.

While new education funding proposals continue to be deliberated, we urge local high school students to pursue scholarships, internships and opportunities already available – especially studies at public or private colleges leading to entry into STEM jobs. We also encourage students to pursue teaching careers in the STEM fields.

Further information on STEM can be found at wnystem.org.

Michelle Kavanaugh is president of WNY STEM Hub