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Keel to Congress: GSU exploring forgivable loans
Concept: Students who work in job after graduation wouldnt have to repay
Georgia Southern University President Brooks Keel testifies about forgivable worker-readiness educational loans Wednesday before Congress. - photo by Special

The following were members of the panel who spoke to the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce during a hearing Wednesday morning:

-    Dr. George A. Pruitt, president of Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, N.J.;
-    Kevin Gilligan, chairman and CEO of Capella Education Co. in Minneapolis;
-    Dr. Joann A. Boughman, senior vice chancellor for academic affairs for the University System of Maryland;
-    David K. Moldoff, CEO and founder of AcademyOne in West Chester, Pa.;
-    Stan Jones, president of Complete College America in Indianapolis; and
-    Dr. Brooks A. Keel, president of Georgia Southern University.

A congressional hearing Wednesday assembled a panel of six people in higher education — including Georgia Southern University President Brooks Keel — to answer a question that is on many minds today: How can a college education be kept affordable yet also produce the highly skilled workers needed for a 21st-century workforce?
Keel offered an innovative idea that Georgia Southern hopes to have in place soon.
“We are actively exploring the concept of industry-sponsored, forgivable, worker-readiness educational loans, awarded to students who participate in co-ops and subsequently commit to working with the sponsoring industry for a one- to three-year term following graduation,” he told the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce. “This will further reduce new-employee turnover and increase the return on investment made by industry in such programs. Such assistance may also provide need-based scholarship opportunities for many of our financially challenged students.”
He added that such forgivable loans, especially those aimed at students for whom college would otherwise be out of reach, “can have a profound impact on preparing a highly trained and diverse workforce.”
“The economic prosperity of this country depends heavily on job creation and on the availability of a highly skilled, educated and trained workforce,” he said. “If adequately supported, workforce grant universities like Georgia Southern will play a significant role in developing this economy and in producing this workforce.”
Asked after the hearing through a spokeswoman about the timing of a forgivable loan program, Keel issued this response: “As we continue progress on exploring the concept of forgivable ‘worker-readiness loans’ this year, we are in an important phase where we must continue to strengthen existing industry partnerships, and work to build sound and productive new partnerships. As these develop, we will be able to share more about each unique opportunity as they are determined and confirmed.”
The forgivable-loan concept was the centerpiece of his statement to the congressional committee, in which he characterized Georgia Southern as a “workforce grant university.” He and the other panelists were invited by U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the committee chairman.
“Perhaps it’s time to extend the original tenets of the land grant university mission created more than 150 years ago by supporting the concept of a workforce grant university,” Keel told the committee. “Georgia Southern is the perfect example of such a workforce grant university.”
Georgia Southern professors interact regularly with businesses in the fields they teach. Keel cited the university’s 28 industry advisory boards, with more than 380 business leaders, “spanning the gamut from mechanical engineering to nursing to graphics communication management to forensic accounting.”
“These external boards meet regularly with our deans and faculty helping to create state-of-the-art curricula and to design practical work-training experiences for our students,” he said.
Such partnerships, extended further through internships and co-ops for students, Keel said, give students the opportunity to see if a particular industry is the right fit for them, allow businesses to see if these individuals would work well in their companies and, overall, help produce more “work ready” students.
All of this helps to “increase job satisfaction, reduces the ‘quit rate’ and aids in keeping these newly hired individuals employed in the state,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., a member of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, praised Keel and the university.
“Georgia Southern University is a shining example of how higher education institutions can seek out innovative ways to better prepare students to enter the workforce with greater success,” Price said. “Dr. Keel and his team at Georgia Southern have shown real leadership on this issue, and we look forward to watching the progress of its workforce initiative.”
Lori Durden, the 12th Congressional District member on the University System of Georgia Board of Regents, said in an interview that she is proud of Keel and the message he carried to Congress.
Durden, the vice president for economic development at Ogeechee Technical College, is the only employee of a Technical College System of Georgia school who serves on the governing board of the separate University System.
“It’s a great thing for Georgia Southern and, heck, it’s a great thing for all of Georgia to have him be asked to do that,” Durden said. “It shows that we, all of us in higher education, are starting to think outside the box and work together to solve the workforce needs of the state. So I’m excited about it and I think we’re going to be an example for the rest of the nation.”
The praise extended beyond those in Georgia.
“The president of Georgia Southern University, Dr. Brooks Keel, testified today on a subject matter that is important to me — preparing the next generation for the workforce,” said U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn. “Georgia Southern clearly has an important story and concept to share on how to prepare our nation’s students for work. We all know the workforce demands that exist in our economy today, and increasing that relationship between college and job placement is critical to fill the need for a highly skilled, and prepared workforce.”

Herald staff writer Al Hackle contributed to this report.

Jason Wermers may be reached at (912) 489-9431.

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