We sometimes read stories about wasted federal funds, but I am delighted to share news about money that was successfully invested in New Mexico’s people. The Skill Up Network Pathway Acceleration in Technology and Healthcare program, also known as SUN PATH, is not only improving lives, but also strengthening health care in our communities.
When I reflect on SUN PATH, I think about the many success stories of people like Victor Medina, a father in his 20s. As a teen, he dropped out of high school thinking he’d go to work. He ended up working two minimum wage jobs. Through SUN PATH, he got his GED and a community health care worker certificate. He went to work as a community health care and diabetes educator at La Familia Medical Center, where he increased his earnings. This year he has returned to Santa Fe Community College to study full time and earn his associate degree. Today in New Mexico, about 300,000 citizens are without a high school credential. This program addresses this need.
Santa Fe Community College received a $15 million grant in 2014 from the U.S. Department of Labor called SUN PATH. New Mexico’s SUN PATH project is a collaboration of 11 community colleges: Santa Fe Community College (lead institution); Central New Mexico Community College; Eastern New Mexico University — Roswell and Ruidoso; Mesalands Community College; New Mexico State University — Alamogordo; San Juan College; The University of New Mexico — Gallup, Los Alamos, Taos and Valencia. Other partners include the Department of Workforce Solutions, Higher Education Department and more than 250 employer partners.
The program has trained a resilient workforce of dislocated workers, veterans, underemployed and unemployed individuals with the goal of employment in high-demand jobs in health care and information technology. As of June 30, about 3,000 participants were enrolled in health care programs. Altogether, 61 percent completed their studies. Thirty-six percent found jobs, and of those whom already had jobs, income increased for nearly everyone.
Industry partners helped guide the development of new programs, have given input on curriculum development and shared key skills and competencies needed for job training programs to be relevant to employers. Students have accelerated their progress through entry-level certificates with support of the Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training program and utilizing Credit for Prior Learning. The Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training, or I-BEST program, serves students who are typically underrepresented, low-income adults who are seeking skills that lead to higher wages and higher skilled jobs.
The success students experience with completion of a short-term certificate often gives them the confidence they need to continue with their education. Additionally, the career coaches based at campuses provide career training and preparation for job placement. The SUN Online program is a course-sharing system between the participating institutions that allows colleges to share quality online courses to ensure that students have access to a variety of courses and degree programs without leaving their home academic institution. It also achieves cost efficiencies by sharing programs.
The grant ends Sept. 30, 2018. With such positive outcomes from the initial investment, it is essential that New Mexico sustains key program elements that have shown great success.
Each campus is developing a sustainability plan. All programs modified and/or created by the grant will continue as long as there is a demand for the courses. The programs were created utilizing Labor Market Information data and show a strong correlation with the needs of the job market.
How will New Mexico sustain such a successful program? It will take creative thinking and budget planning by the community colleges. The Legislature also should recommend funding aspects of SUN PATH, such as placing a job development career coach from the Department of Workforce Solutions at each college, the I-BEST program and the SUN Online program.
There are many more individuals like Victor looking for an opportunity to gain skills and improve their economic outlook. New Mexico must continue to build on the success of the grant’s investment.
Carmen Gonzales, Ph.D., is the principal investigator for the SUN PATH grant. A lifelong educator, she is the former vice president for student success at Santa Fe Community College. She also is vice president emerita at New Mexico State University. To learn more about SUN PATH, visit www.sfcc.edu/programs/sun-path/.