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Adults with low educational skills hamper W.Va. economy

Experts in economics, education and welfare agree: a key to
improving West Virginia’s
long-struggling economy is developing the state’s “human capital.”

That means while the state wants young people to catch up to
national standards, West Virginia’s
adults are also in need of education and training to build and sustain new

A national study released last week by the Annie E. Casey
Foundation noted that in 2005, 39 percent of West
Virginia’s children live in homes “where no
parent has full-time, year-round employment,” which gives the state a rank
of 46th in the country. That is a slight improvement over 2000, when 40 percent
of the state’s parents were considered “idle.”

The Mountain State’s
dependence on seasonal work may play into its low ranking, said West
Virginia University
economist George Hammond.

“We’re a heavily rural state and sometimes what we see
in these rural states is that the informal economy tends to be relatively
large. There are opportunities or ways that individuals or families can make
their way without necessarily holding the types of full-time jobs we think
about as traditional full-time work,” Hammond

While some people are able to lead relatively stable lives
through part-time seasonal work and bartering for goods, that isn’t the whole
story, Hammond said.

“The other major part is that the West
Virginia’s economy doesn’t do very well typically in
terms of generating job growth in relatively high-paying, full-time
occupations,” Hammond said.

Before those jobs can be generated and sustained, though, an
educational deficit needs to be addressed.

“Only 16.9 percent of West Virginians
aged 25 and older have a bachelors degree and that’s last in the country,”
said Brian Noland, chancellor of the state Higher Education Policy Commission.

In an effort to help rectify the situation, Noland said the
commission is focusing on “providing more appropriate opportunities for
more adults” by increasing access to need-based scholarships.

Many adults don’t realize they can get scholarships to help
pay for college, regardless of how well or badly they did in high school,
Noland said. State and federal funds can help provide for the projected need of
an adult interested in going back to college.

One way the HEPC is hoping to attract more adults is by
streamlining the application form for scholarships down to one form for both
state and federal agencies.

“For this coming fall there are about 3,300
PELL-eligible students who will not get a state grant because they did not fill
out a secondary state application,” Noland said. PELL grants are federal
funds for college students.

“What’s important to me is that of these (3,300)
students a full two-thirds of that are nontraditional (or adult)
students,” Noland said.

The streamlining of the forms will be discussed at an Aug. 3
meeting, Noland said, adding that any decision will be crucial because
currently, “if you’re a 42-year-old single father who wants to go back to
college for additional training to help improve your family’s life, you have
some hurdles to overcome in West Virginia that you don’t have to overcome
anywhere else.”

Sue Buster, director of division of family assistance, says
the state’s welfare division is trying to do their part to help adults train
for jobs after they leave cash-assistance programs.

“We can pay for training programs for individual
recipients, anything available at the vocational tech centers or other
proprietary schools that operate in a recipients respective county,”
Buster said.

“But it has to be something that would lead to
employment,” she added, citing nursing as an in-demand work sector in many
parts of the state.

For some, the vicious circle of poverty and educational
shortcoming starts long before adulthood. The same Casey foundation study finds
that 11 percent of West Virginians between the ages of
16 and 19 do not work or go to school. Seasonal work could account for the
whereabouts of many of those teens, who forgo education to help their families
— but it also prolongs the cycle of low educational attainment.

“Poverty causes students sometimes to leave school to
get work and we have some pockets of extreme poverty in West
Virginia,” said Jack McClanahan, deputy
superintendent of the West Virginia Board of Education.

McClanahan says the state is trying to address the problem
by showing students high school is relevant to the work world. They’re doing
that through a modernization of the curriculum, called the 21st Century Schools

“One of the emphases of that initiative is to make the
students’ work more meaningful so they see a relevance to getting a job after
high school, and that the work they do is tied to them being successful either
in employment or college right after high school,” McClanahan said.

And a high school diploma has never been more important to West
Virginia, Hammond

“Coming out of school with less than a high
school level of education — you’re basically behind the 8-ball, to sugarcoat
it,” Hammond said.

– Associated Press

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