Operator Training Program Loses Federal Financial Aid

Here's how reduced funding might affect an important wastewater training program at the Environmental Resources Training Center at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville.
Operator Training Program Loses Federal Financial Aid
The year-long program at the Environmental Resources Training Center combines classroom training with hands-on experience in a 30,000 gpd pilot scale plant that features five different wastewater and drinking water processes.

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The Environmental Resources Training Center at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville provides a unique opportunity for aspiring treatment plant operators. Its year-long program combines classroom training with hands-on experience in a 30,000 gpd pilot scale plant that features five different wastewater and drinking water processes. Students finish with a 10-week internship, splitting their time between wastewater and drinking water facilities. If they pass the subsequent exams, they walk away with five different operator certifications in Illinois and Missouri, and likely a job — the program boasts an 80 percent placement rate.

But taking advantage of that opportunity is difficult at the moment because of the U.S. Department of Education’s recent decision to rescind federal financial aid for the program’s students, something most of them rely on, says Paul Shetley, director of the Environmental Resources Training Center.

“It surprised all of us,” he says. “Why would you do such a thing? One, it’s a program that is putting people to work in a good career — not just a job, but a good career. Second, it’s in the water industry, which is very important. We all need good, clean water.”

The Department of Education’s reasoning? It is a vocational program in a university setting, and students should be earning college credits to be eligible for aid rather than the certification they earn through the program. Shetley says he doesn’t know why that determination is being made now, more than 30 years after the program was founded. Students even had to return $190,000 of aid that was received for the fall 2015 semester.

“I thought we would have at least been given a warning if they wanted to discontinue financial aid,” Shetley says. “Give us a couple of years to get accredited as a vocational center separate from the university, and that way the students could keep receiving aid. We’re basically letting the students go to school at a very reduced price right now because we weren’t going to shut down the training center and throw the students out just because the Department of Education made, in my mind, an unjust call.”

The program’s tuition is $10,600 per year, and it averages 20 to 30 students a year — both high school graduates wanting to get started in the field and older students looking for a new career path. Currently there are 35 students, the maximum number that can be accommodated due to the amount of hands-on training. Shetley says without any financial aid, enrollment numbers could suffer going forward and that ultimately has a negative effect on a larger scale.

“There are a lot people retiring in this industry, and communities have the problem of finding qualified people to run their systems,” he says. “Demand seems to be growing and, as word gets out, more people are looking at this as a career, so we’re a valuable training center. But 60 percent of our students take advantage of financial aid. I had one person come in recently who said she can’t afford the tuition. She’d love to come here in the next year, but she can’t afford it.”

Shetley says the Environmental Resources Training Center is working on a solution. One option is to bring the program under the umbrella of nearby Lewis & Clark Community College. It operates under a different set of rules that would allow college credits to be applied to vocational training, thereby giving the program’s students financial aid eligibility once again. But Shetley says there is still some uncertainty about how that arrangement would work.

“Our facility is on Southern Illinois University’s property, obviously, but then we have a part of the program we want to put under the umbrella of Lewis & Clark, yet we still have all our continuing education programs we want to leave as is without any changes. It gets kind of complicated,” he says. “I don’t know where it’s going to lead us, but we want to do everything we can so these students have an opportunity for financial aid because it doesn’t look like the Department of Education is going to waver on its decision.”

Shetley says there continues to be a lot of interest in the program this year, so if the financial aid issue can be worked out, he believes enrollment will be about 30 in the fall. He says it’s particularly important to do everything possible to keep enrollment up considering the high level of hands-on training the Environmental Resources Training Center can provide. The 30,000 gpd pilot scale plant has two wastewater treatment processes — activated sludge and MBBR — and can simulate drinking water treatment using groundwater, surface water and a reverse osmosis process. Students often spend the first part of their day at the plant in small work groups going through various operator roles as if they were at an actual treatment facility. Southern Illinois University has its own treatment plant nearby, and raw water is pumped from there to the training plant and then back to the headworks.

“As far as I know we’re the only training center in the U.S. that has the type of facilities we do,” Shetley says. “There are other training centers around the country, but we’re lucky enough to have such a large plant to use in training. It’s the perfect teaching tool.”


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