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A 2015 Lake Area Technical Institute graduate displays a message to President Barack Obama on his graduation cap at the Civic Arena in Watertown, S.D. PHOTO: JOHN BROSE/BROSE PHOTOGRAPHY


Not in his "wildest dreams" did Mike Cartney ever imagine himself being president of a college that hosted the president of the United States as its commencement speaker. In the weeks leading up to Lake Area Technical Institute's May 8 graduation ceremony, Cartney's sentiment seemed to be shared by fellow LATI employees, graduates and the residents of Watertown, S.D., as they cleaned streets, hung signs and prepped their cameras for the historic occasion. The humble, "who, me?" reaction from the community even made its way into President Barack Obama's speech, which included reactions from several LATI staffers upon hearing the news that he would deliver the commencement speech, including agriculture instructor Alexis Stinton, who said, "That's the funniest joke in the world. We're just a tiny little school, in this little tiny town."

And yes, this town of about 21,000 in northeast South Dakota may be the fifth largest town in the state, but it is certainly not large. The Watertown Regional Airport's runway could not accommodate the Boeing 747 usually used by the president, so a smaller 757 served as Air Force One for the trip. The extensive motorcade that accompanies all presidential trips seemed almost comical considering the drive from the airport to Watertown's Civic Arena, where the commencement ceremony was held, takes about 10 minutes. But the impressive track record LATI has built over the years in graduation rates, job placements and salaries earned by its alumni is certainly no joke. And as Obama continues to pitch his proposal for free community college nationwide, LATI provided the perfect example of the results that can be achieved through two-year colleges.

"I believe that in a fast-paced, hyper-connected, constantly changing world, there are few institutions that are more important to America's economic future than community colleges," he said in his speech. "And there are few community colleges that are as important as Lake Area Tech. This school is leading the way."

Obama applauded LATI for being one of only two colleges in the country to be named a finalist with distinction in all three of the Aspen Institute's Community College Excellence competitions to date. In order to receive the award colleges must demonstrate outstanding performance in areas including graduation rates, student learning, employment and earnings, and high levels of access and success for minority and low-income students. LATI's graduation rates hover around 80 percent, with 98 percent of graduates employed or pursuing additional education six months after graduation. And according to the school, its graduates earn 50 percent more than other new hires in the region.

In early December, LATI was invited to attend the White House College of Opportunity Day of Action in Washington, D.C., where, along with other Aspen Institute finalists, the college committed to continuing to help increase the number of Americans with post-secondary degrees. For schools like LATI, which already enjoy high graduation rates, Cartney says that commitment requires a recruitment style which focuses on job placement post-education, whether it includes a stop at LATI or not.

"You're no longer talking about what degree they're going to get, because to a high school senior that might be kind of intangible," he says. "But [instead] you're talking about what it is that you want to be, what do you want to do and what do you want your future to look like, and then say 'What is the educational path that gets you there?' We hope that that's an educational path we offer, but if it's not we're going to guide them to where they need to go."

Industry Partners

In his speech, Obama also praised the school for its "relentless focus on teaching real-world skills" to students, which he credited for LATI's impressive job placement rates. Indeed, at a time when industry and education seem to struggle to connect, LATI appears to have mastered the art of collaborating to provide relevant training to students. Every program at the school has an industry advisory board that meets with staff each semester to see that the program and course objectives align with employer demands. The school also surveys employers as well as students to make sure the product being produced -- workforce members -- meet the industry's needs. "It takes some time, it takes some effort," Cartney says of industry collaboration. "You can't just throw it out there and say you want to have some ties with the industry. The school needs to make commitments and industry needs to make commitments and both recognize that this is something that is important to both sides."

LATI is one of only about a dozen colleges in the U.S. to offer Butler Machinery Co.'s Caterpillar service technology program, ThinkBIG, which provides scholarships and paid internships for its diesel technology participants. The flexibility of being a two-year college also allows it to adapt programs quickly to meet industry needs as they change. When representatives of Otter Tail Power Co.'s Big Stone Power Plant approached the school in need of workers able to build and maintain power plants, LATI was able to launch a new program to provide that training within months.

Because many of its attendees are already in the workforce (about three-quarters of this year's graduating class were working while they attended school), LATI also hires specialists to meet with employers and identify various ways they can help students succeed in their pursuit of post-secondary degrees. "Whether it's giving scholarships or giving their employees time on their lunch break in a quiet place to study, or access to high-speed Internet while they're at work to do their studies ... those kinds of things you maybe don't always think about as an employer, but just showing your employees that you support their efforts in college can make all the difference in the world as to whether somebody completes [their degree] or not," Cartney says.

Free Future?

Of course the financial implications of post-secondary education play a major role in attendance and graduation rates as well. Nearly all of this year's LATI graduates received some type of financial aid to help fund their coursework, a situation not uncommon at schools around the country. In his speech, Obama touted his administration's expansion of federal Pell Grant funding and tax breaks to ease the financial burden of college and drew hearty applause from the audience when he addressed his proposal to eliminate the cost of community college altogether. "For everybody willing to work for it, we need to make two years of community college as free and universal as high school is today," he said. "It's the right thing to do."

The brief details Obama offered regarding a funding mechanism for free college received a noticeably less enthusiastic response, however. The plan, estimated to cost $60 billion over 10 years, could be funded by closing a tax loophole for millionaires and billionaires, he said. The loophole he referred to closing, commonly referred to as the "trust fund loophole" would increase capital gains taxes in certain situations. Many local college leaders say they support the idea of free community college, but question whether the financial logistics are feasible.

"There is little doubt that making the first two years of technical or community college free would help build and evolve our workforce," Cartney says. "As industries evolve, equipment and processes get more and more technical. More than 60 percent of today's positions require some post-secondary education, but less than a baccalaureate degree. However, considering the national debt and the cost of a such a program, it is not going to be easy to get done."

Meanwhile, South Dakota has launched its own attempt at eliminating tuition costs for some of its community college students. In his remarks at the commencement ceremony, Gov. Dennis Daugaard championed the state's efforts to train much-needed skilled workers, including investing millions of dollars into South Dakota's four technical institutes over the past few years and a recently launched joint effort between the state and philanthropist T. Denny Sanford to provide full-ride scholarships to students attending those schools. The $50 million, five-year Build Dakota scholarship program will provide full scholarships to a total of 1,500 students seeking technical degrees in high-demand areas, beginning this fall. Daugaard encouraged attendees to spread the word about the program to students entering college and directly asked LATI graduates to contribute to relieving the state's workforce shortage. "I hope you'll decide to remain in South Dakota," he said. "We need you. Please, consider a future right here at home."

Focus on Students

Ahead of the ceremony, Cartney said the school was doing everything it could to ensure that the graduates remained the focus of the commencement, despite its famous guest speaker. Obama did his part to direct attention to the honorees during his address, calling out several graduates by name and sharing their journeys through college with the audience. One of them was Maysa Hackens, who despite being blind in one eye pursued her passion for photography and earned an associate degree in business and photography. The president noted that she has already launched her own photography business -- How Eye See It Photography -- based just outside of Rapid City, S.D., in her hometown of New Underwood. "That's the kind of initiative that built this country," the president said in his speech. "And a little free advertising from the president doesn't hurt."

Hackens says she had no idea the president would call on her and share her story during his speech, but she's been enjoying the immediate benefits of presidential recognition. "My business has skyrocketed because of it," she says. The number of "likes" for her Facebook page doubled in less than a week after graduation, her company website has experienced "a huge spike" in hits and she's received multiple photo shoot inquiries as a result of Obama mentioning her business name, she says. As she continues to build her startup, Hackens says she feels secure in knowing that her LATI teachers, including her mentor, Scott Shephard, will continue to readily provide assistance whenever she asks

As for the presidential bump provided to her business, she says it was unexpected, but appreciated. "It took awhile to sink in," she says. "Everything felt like a dream until I got my diploma. It was a really great day." PB

Kris Bevill

Editor, Prairie Business