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High-Tech curriculum fuels Stark State enrollment boom

Stark State College. Photos by Bob Perkoski and submitted
Stark State College. Photos by Bob Perkoski and submitted

The future looks bright for Stark State College of Technology. Despite -- or perhaps because account of -- the economic downturn, area students are beating a path to the Stark County college's door. Not only is enrollment up, but it's up BIG. 

Between 2000 and 2009 enrollment at Stark State has shot up a remarkable 169 percent. That's nearly 2.7 times more students than there were only nine years earlier. In absolute numbers, student population climbed from 4,691 to 12,610. Total enrollment for all Ohio community colleges rose a healthy 44 percent in the same nine-year period, and enrollment at Ohio's public colleges and universities rose a more modest 25 percent.

The bottom line: Stark State has outgrown all other state colleges and universities over the last ten years.

Education for a new workforce

"The enrollment gains at Stark State are great news because it shows people are recognizing the value of education," says Byron White, Vice Chancellor for Economic Advancement, Ohio Board of Regents. "Stark State's curriculum is well aligned with the workforce needs of businesses in that region. The institution has a tremendous history of building relationships with the private sector, and students there are being trained to fill those emerging jobs."

Last year (2008-09) the college's enrollment increased a whopping 33 percent, and preliminary data from the Ohio Board of Regents show the boom isn't over, with enrollment soaring nearly 19 percent between Fall '09 and Fall '10. The number of Stark State students has swelled from 12,485 to 14,834.

A three-story, 42,000-square-foot Business and Entrepreneurial Center will help to accommodate the school's growing business programs, and there's a new Automotive Center in downtown Canton. Since 2004, the college has spent about $30 million on construction and renovation of facilities.

"The first reality is that we need a more highly educated workforce…the fact that our residents are pursuing education, beyond high school, is a plus for the state economically…our residents are going to need those higher levels of education to fulfill the demands of a knowledge-based, global, high-tech economy," says White.

Corporate partnerships

The Ohio Third Frontier Commission and Advisory Board recently approved $2.1 million in funding for the Wind Energy Research and Development Center at Stark State College of Technology. The 12,000-square-foot facility, to be operated by the Timken Company, will make it possible to assemble and test full-scale bearing systems under real-world application weight loads and environmental conditions.

Ohio Third Frontier, Timken, and Stark State College of Technology will invest more than $8 million in the project, which is expected to create 57 temporary construction jobs and eight permanent positions. Additional phases could involve prototyping and manufacturing. A $1.5 million loan from the Ohio Air Quality Development Authority's advanced energy jobs stimulus program will have to be repaid.

A $1.23 million grant from Ohio Third Frontier will pay for equipment and construction of the center, while Timken, a producer of highly engineered anti-friction bearings, will receive $900,000 for the center's development.

Powering Up

In 2006, Stark State completed construction of a $4.7 million Fuel Cell Prototyping Center. The Center assists companies in pre-commercialization prototyping and demonstration. Rolls-Royce Fuel Cell Systems (US) Inc., the center's exclusive tenant, chose Canton for its North American headquarters in 2007. The Prototyping Center was a major factor in that decision.

Stark State offers a fuel cell technology option, one-year technical certificate, certificate of competency, and scholarship as part of its mechanical engineering program. The option incorporates mechanical, electrical, and chemical technologies that focus on alternative energy sources, especially fuel cell technology. Cheryl Rice, the college's VP for Enrollment, says students are developing a fuel cell so powerful it could satisfy the energy needs of the entire campus.

Filling a Need

"We're looking to meet the needs of our students, our employers, and our community," Rice says. "We work to align our curriculum with the needs of the employers in the region."

Other programs are also enjoying increased enrollment.

"Information Technology is very popular," Rice says. "All of our Healthcare programs are in strong demand. Our Business Entrepreneurship program is very effective, and the automotive program is also strong. We offer career enhancement certificates, or stackable certificates, which are short-term. Someone who already has a bachelor's or master's degree can add a certificate to broaden their skills and certify proficiencies that their employer values." 

"Stackable" certificates can be applied toward a second degree.

Rice, who attributes increased enrollment to the growting demand for more highly skilled employees, says prospective employers like workers who have developed themselves professionally and invested in themselves.

"Stark State helps us to meet that need. The course offerings provide opportunity for employment -- for sustainable employment."

Rice says, in the end, that's the role of colleges like Stark State.

"Anytime an institution responds to the technological workforce needs of the private sector, it's important; it sends a message that our colleges are in line with business needs in our state. To the degree that institutions do that we know it's going to drive economic growth. Businesses like Rolls Royce and others are looking for educational partners." 

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