WHEELING - With multiple two- and four-year colleges and universities within an hour's drive of Wheeling, children growing up in the Ohio Valley have plenty of options to continue their education beyond high school without leaving the area.
But without an open door to a career, a college degree can end up as nothing more than a piece of paper. That's why local institutions of higher education say they're focused on moving in a new direction where they make sure their programs are opening those career pathways, and they believe they're having a good deal of success.
At West Liberty University, administrators point to the school's recent performance in a study of the value of degrees earned at hundreds of colleges and universities around the country based on salaries earned versus the cost of a degree. According to the study, WLU graduates' return on investment in their education ranks highest among regional colleges and universities in West Virginia and second overall in the state behind West Virginia University.
West Liberty University students Kenjay Trueblood, left, and Marcie Hutt share a conversation between classes.
"We expect our campus to focus on student success and this study reveals that it's working," said WLU President Robin Capehart.
West Liberty plans to graduate its first batch of students from its new physician assistant program in June 2014, which college officials say will be one of the most in-demand health professions over the next 20 years, particularly in West Virginia, where many communities are considered medically underserved and a large segment of the physician population is approaching retirement age.
Julie Horton, a career services counselor at West Virginia Northern Community College - which has campuses in Wheeling, Weirton and New Martinsville - said of the five occupations in highest demand, WVNCC offers degrees that will qualify students for jobs in four of them: registered nurse, paralegal, general manager and preschool teacher/early childhood education.
The college also offers training programs geared toward students looking to land a job in energy industries.
"Based on geographical data for jobs with high growth rate and actual present demand, (our) programs are preparing students to enter the top fields where jobs exist, and are projected to grow," said Horton.
Horton also highlighted WVNCC's health information technology degree program, offered in response to a growing demand for skills in electronic medical records.
"Graduates of this program report a 100-percent job placement rate upon graduation," she said.
Administrators at Bethany College also are working to help their graduates land jobs right out of college.
"As a result of this focus on career preparation, Bethany has a high concentration of graduating students with degrees relating to markets that are continuing to grow every year, such as education, communications and business," said Bethany spokeswoman Rebecca Rose.
Through a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Bethany also offers the opportunity for students in six different areas of study to earn both a bachelor's degree from its institution and a master's from CMU in a span of five years. The college also offers a master of arts in teaching program.
Wheeling Jesuit University believes its encouragement of participation in scholarly research during students' undergraduate years prepares them for the rigors of graduate school, and in turn to stand out among their peers in a competitive job market. According to university officials, students there are twice as likely as those at other colleges to collaborate with their professors on research projects.
Wheeling Jesuit's research partners include the National Institutes of Health and NASA, as well as on-campus, research-intensive initiatives such as the Appalachian Institute, Center for Educational Technologies, NASA-sponsored Classroom of the Future, Challenger Learning Center and the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center.
WJU also is in the beginning stages of a new, five-year strategic plan. For this school year, the university is focusing on two areas dealing with student achievement: learning outcomes and job placement for graduates.
President Richard Beyer has said through learning outcomes, "what we mean by that is really understanding what students are taking away from their college education. We know there's a lot of questions in the general public about what students are learning, how they're being prepared at colleges, and we've been told by accreditors that we're really ahead of the game on measuring student outcomes. ... So what we thought we would do is get ahead of the curve, since we were already perceived as a leader, we thought that was an important area - learning outcomes and then also ... undergraduate research.
"In terms of job placement versus career development, it's really more of a conscious transition, about going beyond helping a student learn how to interview or preparing a resume, that might be an example of career development. But we then need to translate that into getting a job. What we're doing is we'll be re-staffing the ... job placement department at Wheeling Jesuit so that we're developing corporate relations, and that we're really understanding what corporations are looking for."