COLUMBUS — University of Nebraska at Omaha and University of Nebraska Medical Center Chancellor Jeff Gold spoke to Columbus Noon Rotary Club members Tuesday as part of a listening tour in Columbus and Norfolk.
In Columbus, a medical hub for the area, Gold made sure to discuss how UNMC builds programs that encourage students to serve in rural communities after they graduate.
Gold said the increased focus on retaining college graduates is not unique to Columbus or Nebraska.
“All the rural communities in America and all the rural communities in Nebraska struggle with keeping the best and the brightest,” he said.
Ninety percent of UNMC’s medical students are from Nebraska and, on average, 48 percent stay in the state after graduation. In Legislative District 22, which includes Platte County, most of Stanton County and northwest Colfax County, 230 health professionals are UNMC graduates.
Gold credits the university's recruitment of Nebraska students for the high retention rate.
“That's probably one of the highest predictors of the likelihood that they'll stay,” he said.
In higher education, there’s a 50/50 rule that predicts 50 percent of a graduating class will take their first job within 50 miles of the school.
Gold said UNMC developed its rural satellite campuses in Norfolk, Kearney and Scottsbluff to increase the odds that medical professionals will settle in these underserved areas.
“When I attend the commencement ceremonies in Scottsbluff or Kearney, the vast majority have jobs lined up within a rock's throw,” he said.
UNMC also encourages students in Omaha to complete some of their training in rural settings, including many in Columbus.
But there are still some formidable challenges.
Last year’s graduating class had only a 28 percent retention rate, which Gold attributed to a large number of students specializing in psychiatry.
Although there is a high demand for behavioral health specialists in Nebraska, there is only one residency program in the state — a collaboration between Creighton University and UNMC. All of the residency positions are in Omaha.
For those who don’t get into that residency program, the only option is to leave the state.
“Of the students that ended up leaving the state for mental health studies, I think the overwhelming majority probably would have stayed in the state if they'd had the opportunity,” Gold said.
The issue isn’t limited to medical students.
UNO’s College of Education is partnering with Columbus-area organizations to address the city’s early childhood education shortage.
UNO early childhood education Professor Debora Wisneski the university has developed programs to help build the workforce needed to provide more child care options.
“As the Columbus area works on expanding their early childhood centers, child care as well as preschools connected with the public schools, we hope teachers and directors leading those programs are qualified in their professional development,” said Wisneski. “Because we know the quality of education and care is related to the quality of the teacher."
One program allows certified elementary school teachers to receive an early childhood endorsement while continuing to work full time with face-to-face lessons once a month. Wisneski said the university has also been working with Central Community College-Columbus on transfer programs between the two schools.
“We are working on the recruitment and that all those pathways are available,” she said. “Many people come from different backgrounds to the field and the certifications, so we want those open to anyone who might be interested.”
Gold also toured the new Columbus High School during his visit.