ST. LOUIS • When some St. Louis higher education leaders rolled out a plan in early 2017 to make St. Louis one of the 10 most-educated regions in the nation, it was still just a concept.
Now they have a plan.
It’s called the Gateway to Degrees, and it’s an effort that’s led by the St. Louis Regional Chamber of Commerce with the help of area college leaders who have bought into the effort.
The report released in February touted hopes that by 2025, the region will grow the number of adults with bachelor’s degrees by 40 percent, a 75,000-person increase; and increase the number of adults with associate degrees by 10 percent, an 18,000 person increase. Kayla Wingbermuehle, Chamber program manager, said the region is around No. 12 right now.
Tapping into what’s worked in other parts of the country, the Chamber announced a new initiative Thursday that could help boost the number of adults with some college credit go back and finish their degree.
“There are over 400,000 adults with some college credit but no degree (in the region),” Wingbermuehle said. “About 30 (percent) to 40 percent are within several credit hours of finishing.”
But for many of these former students, going back to school comes with challenges. Perhaps their transcripts are on hold because of past-due balances, or the for-profit school they started out at no longer exists. The Chamber hired help for these returning students — a coach of sorts.
The coach — or “navigator” — is part of the newly announced Gateway to Degrees initiative.
It starts with a website where a returning adult student can enter in their basic information, like how much college credit they know or think they have, when they want to go back, what company they work for and any other needs or restrictions.
Then the hired coach reviews the information, checking to see whether there are any tuition assistance programs with the student’s employer, connecting them with scholarship programs, among other things. The goal is to help connect the dots to make finishing the degree reasonable.
Needing more than 90,000 graduates to reach the goal of making St. Louis a top 10 region for degree attainment can’t be fixed by one coach, Wingbermuehle admits. So 10 area colleges have pledged money to hire more – St. Louis University, Washington University, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Fontbonne University, Webster University, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Maryville University, St. Louis Community College, Western Governors University and Southwestern Illinois College.
“While this project is an ambitious one, we have the necessary resources,” SLU President Fred Pestello said in a statement. “We have a range of colleges and universities ready to serve. It is critically important that we, as a city and a nation, be responsive to our students and go above and beyond to meet their needs as we support them to and through college. As a region, we can best serve students by seeing the St. Louis Regional Education Commitment as our common purpose.”
Wingbermuehle said there are other regions seeing success with similar programs, like Philadelphia, which hired many coaches. But this is the first push of its kind that’s led by a Chamber of Commerce, she said.
Businesses are getting on board, too. Future phases of this push for degree completion could require tapping into local companies to support their employees who are getting back into the classroom.
“We want to create culture shifts.” Wingbermuehle said.