More reform in works for local colleges

One of my friends who loves policy analysis likes to say, “Statistics are stubborn things.” So are long-term trends.

Despite some recent upward blips, the stubborn numbers on enrollment at the two-year colleges in Washington County are points in case. Long-term enrollment declines persist at UWM – Washington County and Moraine Park Technical College. The UWM campus is down another 14% this year on top of an almost 70% decline over the last decade. Similarly, but not as drastically, Moraine Park is down 33% over the last ten years and more than 22% over the last five, but up 3% this year.

Those statistics mean that the debate and decision-making on future directions for the two-year colleges are not over.

Recall that Washington County Executive Joshua Schoemann created a task force, which I co-chaired, in late 2022 of eleven local leaders to come up with recommendations that would best serve our young people and returning adults seeking the education necessary for good careers and citizenship. It recommended combining the two colleges in the county, which are four miles apart, and the creation of a community college.

The concept ran into status quo opposition from both institutions and a funding of the pilot veto by Gov. Evers, our purported education governor.

The task force did serve a useful purpose, though, despite striking out on its central recommendation. The findings during that process revealed that the future of higher education is far more complex and deep-running than most people understood prior to the work of the task force. Fresh concepts emerged.

Here are some of the insights that are better understood:

  • We are really dealing with the educational journeys of juniors and seniors in high school all the way through two-and four-degrees. What coordinated educational options do we make available to young people ages 16 to 22?
  • The current cutoff between K-12 schooling, two-year colleges and baccalaureate universities no longer apply. High school students are earning technical education credentials and dual credits toward baccalaureate degrees for free while still in high school. They are already “college students.”
  • The most startling outcome was in northeast Wisconsin where youths can graduate from high school with both a diploma and a two-year associate degree. In effect, they become college juniors. The boundaries between the three levels of education are seen as “blurred.”
  • All three levels of education are paying heightened attention to the kinds of jobs that their regional economies demand, like shipbuilding in the Northeast. Apprenticeships, internships, and certificates of competence are on the rise.
  • Automatic enrollment of high school juniors into community colleges to keep enrollments up will be in the policy mix going forward.
  • Included in the 2+2+2 educational journey is more intense, customized guidance by educators to get students through the maze of educational and career pathways.

Serious education policy-makers are working out of the spotlight to accommodate the new worlds of work and new education delivery methods. Fresh solutions will emerge, because they must. The declining enrollments cannot be sloughed off.

The long-term trends, left unaddressed, will result in campus closings beyond the ones that have already occurred at Cardinal Stritch University and UW Platteville – Richland Center.

The county and state owe the task force a big thank you for highlighting the new dynamics of career and citizen-building.

Stay tuned. Dramatic changes will be coming to address not only enrollment, but also student debt levels and job readiness.

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