WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — On Friday, Kansas celebrated a program that has provided free job training to high school students across the state for the last 10 years.

In 2012, the governor and legislature signed off on Senate Bill 155, now known as Excel in CTE. It provides free career technical education (CTE) at Kansas technical and community colleges for juniors and seniors in high school.

In the 10 years since then, the program has grown from around 8,000 high school students a year to more than 13,000. Wichita’s WSU Tech says 50% of its students are high school students.

The school hosted the Excel in CTE 10th anniversary celebration Friday morning at its National Center for Aviation Training hangar, 4004 N. Webb Road.

“Excel in CTE has been a game-changer for WSU Tech, there is no doubt,” Sheree Utash, WSU Tech president, said. “It’s a game-changer for all the high schools that we work with.”

Students who have been in the program say it is life-changing.

Kylie LeValley (Courtesy WSU Tech)

“I first heard about Excel in CTE the summer after my freshman year of high school, and I was like, ‘Oh, I can take all of these classes for free?'” Kylie LeValley, senior at Wichita North High. “Like it made sense but also like … that’s crazy.”

LeValley is in the patient care technician certification program at WSU Tech. She said she will graduate from WSU Tech the day before she graduates from high school, and she will have 76 college credits. She said it puts her a year and a half ahead of other students her age when she enters the nursing program at Wichita State University.

“My life truly has been changed,” she said.

Eli Chiles graduated from the program last year. He is working full-time as a welder, already has an associate’s degree and is teaching part-time at WSU Tech. He said he hasn’t even been out of high school for a full year.

Eli Chiles (Courtesy WSU Tech)

“Going through the program, it was a huge life-changer,” he said. “From not only getting the education that I needed but also the instructors were so helpful, really instilling what it means to be a valuable member of society and somebody that is going to succeed.”

Chiles said that if someone had told him two years ago that this was where he would be in life, he would have said they were crazy. But he said the word about Excel in CTE is spreading.

“I wouldn’t be here without it. It has been amazing,” he said. “The teaching of not only the industry but also the work skills, life skills. They really want to see you succeed — on through college and into the workforce.”

He said it is one of the reasons he is now teaching welding.

“It just changed my life so much that I really just wanted to help go through that process and change other people’s lives as well,” Chiles said.

Macie Schwind (Courtesy WSU Tech)

Macie Schwind came out of WSU Tech with 70 college credit hours. Even though she is a first-year student at Wichita State University, she is a junior working toward a degree in biology and future dental school.

She also spoke at the Excel in CTE 10th anniversary celebration.

“In the next 10 years, (the program) is going to triple,” Schwind said. “I don’t think it’s just going to be this size. I think that there’s only room for improvement, and I just can’t wait to see what it does for other students like me.”

The WSU Tech president spoke to the three students before the ceremony. She said they all mentioned moving into careers and not having any student loan debt.

“Student loan debt is the largest debit in this country, exceeding credit card debt, and they don’t have that because it changed their lives,” Utash said. “So not only has it helped them financially but it’s also given them a pathway and a career that they can then build upon.”

She said she is thankful for the Kansas politicians who started the program and who continue to fund Excel in CTE.

“What an incredible impact that the governor and the state legislature have had on changing young people’s lives and giving them the opportunity,” Utash said.

She said Senate Bill 155 was a critical piece of legislation.

“It’s changing the trajectory of economic life, of talent pipelines and workforce, putting people in the workforce sooner than what they would have been before,” Utash said.

The highest areas of enrollment at WSU Tech include applied technology, health sciences, aviation and manufacturing.

Utash said Excel at CTE has saved tax-paying families in Sedgwick County more than $46 million and expedited young people straight into the workforce. She said it is also breaking the cycles of poverty.

“It’s lifting up families. It’s lifting up communities, and it’s making higher education attainable for all young people and helping them to aspire to things that they never would have known about,” she said.

According to Utash, 92% of WSU Tech students stay in south-central Kansas.

“We don’t have that out-migration of talent,” she said. “That’s incredibly important when we look at the needs of all kinds of industry sectors and what their needs are going to be and the future of work.”

Contact the community and technical colleges directly to find Excel in CTE-eligible courses. The Kansas Board of Regents has a partial list of the schools on its website.

WSU Tech calls its program for high school students JumpStart. Its Excel in CTE courses are free, but the general education courses are $80 a credit hour. Click here to learn more.