When Joyce Coleman enrolled in the paralegal program at Rose State College, she didn't fit the profile of a typical community college student.
But despite that, she's exactly the kind of student Oklahoma business and higher education leaders hope to see increase in number in the coming years.
Coleman, 44, graduated in May with an associate degree in paralegal studies. But her time at Rose State wasn't her first college experience — before starting at Rose State, she already held a bachelor of business administration degree from Langston University and a master's degree in creative studies from the University of Central Oklahoma.
Although it's relatively common for adult students to enroll in associate degree programs, Coleman said she suspects it's less common for students with graduate-level degrees to come back for an associate degree.
“I think it was unusual,” she said. “I really didn't tell a lot of people.”
Coleman has worked as a docket clerk for the state Labor Department for 14 years.
She wanted to move up, but to do that, she knew she'd need more education. While she was interested in improving her skills, she said, she knew she didn't want to be an attorney. So the paralegal program seemed like a good fit.
Now that she's graduated, Coleman said she's looking for opportunities to move up in the department. Although balancing school with her career was difficult, she said she'd do it again without a second thought.
Coleman's graduation comes amid a statewide effort to recruit and graduate more students like her. Glen Johnson, chancellor of the Oklahoma State System of Higher Education, has called for an additional 20,400 degrees and certificates to be awarded in Oklahoma over the next 12 years. That goal is a part of Complete College America, a nationwide initiative designed to boost college completion.
That effort isn't limited to Oklahoma. Others, including Obama administration officials and education advocacy organizations, have joined the call for more Americans to earn some kind of postsecondary degree or certification. In a report released earlier this year, the nonprofit Lumina Foundation for Education warned industry demands soon could outstrip the number of available workers with degrees.
That's particularly true in Oklahoma, said Matt Robison, the State Chamber of Oklahoma's vice president for government affairs. Oklahoma is in the midst of an effort to move its economy from one that relies heavily on the oil and gas industry to a more diverse, stable one, he said. To do that, he said, the state needs a workforce that's qualified to work in industries that are poised to grow.
The State Chamber has been a vocal supporter of Johnson's college completion goals and has called for greater expansion of programs related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, both at the common and higher education levels.
Robison pointed to the recent announcement that ASCO Industries, a Belgian aerospace company, would open a new production facility in Stillwater as an example of an industry with a growing footprint in the state.
During the announcement, company officials cited a strong workforce in the city, which is home to Oklahoma State University, a leader in aerospace technology.
But not everyone is thrilled with the state's recent push to produce more college graduates. Brandon Dutcher, vice president for policy at conservative think tank Oklahoma Council for Public Policy, said he's concerned the effort might do more harm than good.
The problem with pushing for more graduates in general, Dutcher said, is that students may end up leaving college deep in debt with a degree that doesn't guarantee a job.
Recent research seems to bear that concern out. An analysis of government data conducted for The Associated Press by Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies shows one in two recent college graduates are either jobless or underemployed.
According to the analysis, strong demand exists in science, education and health fields. But demand lags for graduates with degrees in arts and humanities, and median wages for those with bachelor's degrees are down from 2000.
Leaving college with debt and limited job prospects has long-term effects on a person's professional and personal life, Dutcher said. If a recent graduate can't find a job to pay down debt, he said, that delays other major milestones like buying a home.
If the state does need more college graduates, Dutcher said he'd like to see officials be more precise about what areas they hope to see increase. He acknowledged that the state likely needs more graduates in certain areas, such as engineering, to keep up with industry demands. But he said he'd like to see decisions regarding college left up to students and parents, rather than being the subject of a major state initiative.
“I'm a little leery of the whole central planning mindset,” he said. “I just don't think it's a no-brainer that we need more college graduates.”