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A state-funded scholarship program proposed by Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts would help connect college graduates to high-paying jobs throughout the state, the governor said Monday.

Among the biennial budget recommendations Ricketts will release next week will be $3.5 million in state-funded scholarships and education initiatives for students at the University of Nebraska, the Nebraska State College System, and the state's community colleges.

"One of the things we've talked about in my administration is our strategy to grow Nebraska," Ricketts said at a news conference with higher education and economic development leaders. "The first pillar of that strategy is to connect those Nebraskans to good-paying job opportunities."

The Nebraska Talent Scholarship would create 250 scholarships for NU students enrolled in math, engineering, health care and computer information systems. Recipients would receive $4,000 per year for up to four years.

The same scholarship would be set up for students at Peru State, Wayne State and Chadron State colleges studying range land management, computer information systems and criminal justice.

Ricketts said an additional $260,000 would be set aside for community colleges to work with the Nebraska Department of Economic Development and local businesses to determine which career fields would be able to offer scholarship assistance to 65 students.

"The idea is to develop those types of talent we are in need of directly here in our state," Ricketts said.

In the second year of the program, funding would double to accommodate a second group of students. Future Legislatures could decide how to continue the program.

Ricketts' plan also calls for expanding the state's Developing Youth Talent Initiative, which stokes an interest in manufacturing and information technology fields for the state's middle-school students by creating partnerships between schools and private industry.

The proposal would boost the program from $250,000 to $1.5 million, allowing for up to 12 grants per year across the state.

Higher education leaders lauded the proposal, saying it will help their respective institutions meet the state's workforce needs, even if some gaps remain.

State college chancellor Paul Turman said the proposed scholarship program would develop the workforce in key areas as identified by a months-long community engagement effort in rural Nebraska.

The program, the idea of which was brought to Ricketts by the state college system, would also help more first-generation students attend college, find internships, and graduate with degrees in high-need fields.

Greg Adams, executive director of the Nebraska Community College Association, said the Nebraska Talent Scholarship demonstrates that the state is taking action to address its workforce needs, not just talking about it.

"It's not going to fix everything, but it's a step forward," he said.

The six community college systems in the state "look forward to sitting down with employers and identifying high-need" areas to allocate scholarship money to fill those needs, Adams added.

And NU President Hank Bounds said as the state is in the midst of a "workforce crisis," the scholarship program would help the university educate students who could fill some fields that have ever-growing needs.

There are 1,700 information technology openings in Nebraska — a number Bounds noted is expected to grow — as well as 1,400 nursing positions and 1,000 accountant and auditor jobs, according to the Nebraska Department of Labor.

"Clearly, at the current rate, we cannot produce enough young people to fill those jobs," he said.

While Nebraska ranks in the bottom 10 states for offering taxpayer-funded assistance to college students, Bounds said the Nebraska Talent Scholarship is "a step in the right direction."

But, Bounds added, with more than one-third of college graduates leaving to work in other states, and a large percentage of the state's highest-achieving students attending college in other states, Nebraska could do more to be financially attractive for students.

The Nebraska Talent Scholarship and expanded Developing Youth Talent Initiative are two parts of Ricketts' proposed budget priorities to be unveiled next week.

Ricketts said Monday he will recommend funding the salary and benefit increases requested by both NU and the state college system.

In August, the NU Board of Regents approved a biennial budget request that would add $17.3 million to the university's state appropriation in the first year, plus an additional $21.7 million in the second year, bringing the university's total state appropriation to $610 million.

Regents warned the requested increase may not cover all of the increased costs borne by NU, however. Along with salary and benefits, NU expects increased costs to utilities and operations. Those costs would need to be managed by more cuts, potentially to programs, or through tuition hikes.

Ricketts did not reveal how the $3.5 million for the scholarship program would fit into the state's already squeezed fiscal picture.

"It will be prioritized within my budget," he said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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