“We have students come out [of high school] able to program these things,” Bivens said as students gathered in groups around the devices. “That’s a really good thing to have on your resume. There’s a lot of opportunity in this community, but not a big workforce to draw from.”
Connecting business and higher education in this way requires colleges and companies alike to transform their way of thinking, said Joe Garcia, a former Colorado lieutenant governor who now leads that state’s community college system. Colleges in the state are trying to attract older adults who don’t have the skills employers need, but businesses need to tell colleges what those skills are.
“Colleges and the way we market need to change,” said Garcia, who also is a former college president. “We need to realize we’re not seeking the students we had 40 years ago.”
Back in Bradley County, students at Walker Valley High are being encouraged to at least complete two free years at Cleveland State or a technical college. Those who successfully finish Walker’s mechatronics program can start college with 12 college credits earned in high school.
Michaela Boggess, 16, hopes to take her mechatronics skills to the University of Tennessee, about 75 miles away, where she wants to study industrial engineering. Her parents didn’t complete college, but they’ve pushed her to do it.
“I’ll probably go for four years, maybe longer,” Michaela said of her college plans. After college, she hopes to go into product design or architecture. “Ever since I was little, I’ve liked to build stuff.”
Fellow Walker Valley student Jordan Munck, 17, isn’t sure yet about his future. He’s been working as an electrician during breaks, he said, but he’ll probably end up taking over his family’s real estate business eventually. A baseball scholarship may change his plans, he said, but for now he’ll probably go to Cleveland State for a couple of years.
“My parents definitely want me to go for those two free years,” he said. “It’s not smart not to do that.”
This story about rural college-going was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.