President Barack Obama is set to speak at the commencement ceremony of a South Dakota technical school only a few months after he announced his proposal to make two years of community or technical college education free and universal — but another initiative might be picking up the slack.
The Associated Press reports that the $60 billion initiative has not been met with bipartisan enthusiasm in Washington, but South Dakota has an effort of its own, with the help of a wealthy state businessman, to give more students the opportunity to attend schools that can teach them the technical skills employers are demanding.
Named the Build Dakota Scholarship Program, the funds have allowed more than 900 applicants to apply to the state's four public technical schools and, so far, about 260 to be awarded financial aid for tuition, books, and any materials needed for their courses. A $25 million donation from philanthropist T. Denny Sanford, which is being matched by the state, is giving students interested in careers in the areas of automotive, building trades, construction, medical lab technicians, and welding the tuition needed to learn their trade. Students who graduate must agree to work in their field of study for three years in South Dakota.
Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown, where Obama spoke Friday, has received 320 scholarship applications, has given 70 people scholarships. and is enrolling 38 scholarship students this fall. One of those students is 40-year-old Teresa Peterson, who will be working toward a licensed practical nurse degree.
"As I get older and my kids are going off to school, I just got this nagging feeling that I never went to school," Peterson said. "I started a family first and started working and I never got the opportunity to go to school and have a degree. My daughter has received $24,000 in scholarships herself but that only pays for one year, so it will be very nice only having to worry about one of us in school."
Still, there are only 300 scholarships granted the first five years. which will use half of the $50 million investment. By 2020, an endowment will be in place and will fund only about 50 scholarships per year. The state is asking high schools to adjust their curricula so that students may earn dual credits from their high schools and the technical schools.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard stated that Lake Area has been chosen a top 10 national finalist for the respected Aspen Institute Community College Excellence Award for three consecutive years and also has one of the highest graduation and placement track records in the country.
During the President's speech at Lake Area Tech, he said that the country could not afford to let any motivated American miss getting the education he or she needs to be successful because of a lack of money, write Jim Kuhnhenn and Regina Garcia Cano for the Associated Press.
Ben Wolfgang, reporting for the Washington Times, quoted the president:
"I didn't come here to inspire you. I came here because you, the graduates, inspire me," the president told the graduating class. "You've lived through some of the toughest economic times in your country's history and you still chose to come here and invest in yourself because you still believe America is a place where you can make it if you try. â¦ With a little hard work, something better is around the bend. And it is that promise that has always set this country apart."
The Associated Press reports that until last week, South Dakota was the only state that the president had not visited. At the start of this year, Obama had only four states left — Idaho, South Carolina, Utah, and North Dakota — which are traditionally Republican states. The only other presidents who visited all 50 states were George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Richard Nixon.
"I can't let my South Dakota friends feel neglected," Obama told KSFY-TV last month when he announced the last stop.