Educational training funds sought

The Appropriations Committee heard testimony March 2 on two bills intended to provide funds for postsecondary education in key fields of study.

Heartwell Sen. John Kuehn, sponsor of LB565, said the bill would provide financial aid to students enrolled in fields of study or training that are integral to the future economic well-being of Nebraska.

LB565 would transfer $3 million from the General Fund, $1 million from the Health Care Cash Fund and $1 million from the Job Training Cash Fund to the Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education for fiscal years 2015-16 and 2016-17. The funds would be used to provide financial support to qualified public and private nonprofit two- and four-year postsecondary educational institutions in Nebraska to support students enrolled in high-need programs.

The bill defines “high-need” fields as construction trades, transportation, warehousing and distribution logistics, science, technology, engineering, mathematics, health care and health services, business administration and teacher education.

The bill would not provide financial support to individual students, Kuehn said, but would instead provide institutional support for programs.

“I think we’ve identified something critical here in targeting these [high-need] fields,” he said.

Fred Ohles, president of Nebraska Wesleyan University, testified in support of the bill. The best way to retain college graduates in Nebraska is for them to have jobs when they graduate, he said.

“I believe LB565 is a good starting point for discussion about how to better utilize state funds for higher education,” Ohles said.

LB584, introduced by Ogallala Sen. Ken Schilz, would create an oral health clinic grant fund that would be used to help expand facilities and programming for the Creighton University School of Dentistry.

The bill would transfer $16.3 million from the Cash Reserve to the Dental Clinic and Educational Facility Grant Fund by July 1, 2016.

Schilz said the state has an interest in expanding dental education in Nebraska and a one-time expenditure from the Cash Reserve Fund would be justified in order to do so.

“Nebraska is sitting on a large cash reserve,” he said. “In my estimation, the cash reserve is too high and some dollars should be invested in this area.”

Mark Latta, dean of the Creighton University School of Dentistry, spoke in favor of the bill. The dental college receives approximately 2,300 applications for the 85 positions it has open each year, he said. The university needs to expand to meet the demand and address the shortage of dentists in 50 of Nebraska’s 93 counties, he said.

“We know good oral health is a significant component for overall wellness for our citizens,” Latta said.

The university has raised $23 million toward the $81.5 million expansion project, he said, and the state funds in LB584 would allow Creighton to expand outreach and scholarship programs to encourage graduates to practice in shortage areas.

No opposition testimony was offered on either bill and the committee took no immediate action.

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