Last updated: April 26. 2014 7:37AM - 3535 Views
By - mguydish@timesleader.com

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WILKES-BARRE — Some problems are simple: Extending tuition payment deadlines for military veterans cash strapped thanks to delays in government checks, for example.

Others are more complex, like trying to attract students into the “STEM” subjects of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

Twenty-one administrators and students from 11 regional colleges and universities mulled those and other issues during a University/College Roundtable” at Wilkes University set up and moderated by U.S. Rep Matt Cartwright on Friday. The agenda hit four topics: STEM education, veterans, student loans and a new national college ranking system proposed by President Barack Obama.

While most colleges touted expanding STEM field programs and initiatives, East Stroudsburg University President Marcia Welsh said there is only so much that can be done at the college level, particularly in attracting women into the fields. “We see a lot of young girls lose interest in seventh grade,” she said.

University of Scranton biology major Grace O’Neill reaffirmed the importance of early encouragement by citing a seventh-grade teacher who encouraged her to pursue a career in science. Luzerne County Community College President Thomas Leary pointed to a new arrangement at the Hazleton Area Academy of Science, where LCCC classes are offered to students as early as ninth grade.

It was Leary who noted the value of extending payment deadlines for veterans, something he said LCCC is starting to do after having learned many veterans are seeing bureaucratic delays in receiving government benefits. He said colleges — and the government — should do more.

“Last year Luzerne County Community college graduated a veteran who, unbeknownst to us at the time, was homeless while earning his degree,” Leary said.

University of Scranton President the Rev. Kevin Quinn noted his school will be dedicating a veterans center next week. Wilkes University President Patrick Leahy suggested much more can be done if colleges and the government team up.

“I think you would find a willingness among colleges to match any federal money to make it free of charge for vets,” Leahy said.

Students spoke passionately about how steep college loan debt can radically reshape a graduate’s career choices. The Commonwealth Medical College student Darshan Shah said the debt incurred by those studying to be doctors almost forces them away from working in lower-paying positions as primary-care physicians, and that “we are facing a huge shortage in primary care physicians.”

And both students and administrators cautioned against a simplistic federal rating system based primarily on affordability and “return on investment” for students through later employment. Several administrators noted such a system would discourage students from enrolling in — and colleges from offering — programs for lower paying but essential jobs in social services and similar public service positions.

“Schools that have an emphasis on public service may have much lower scores,” in such a system, King’s College President the Rev. John Ryan said. “A lot of public good falls outside of this rating system.”

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