With the support of the Wisconsin legislature and its promise of $3.35 million in integration money, Washington County has a greatly enhanced opportunity to bring about the creation of a community college.
The end game for responsible adults in terms of higher education in Washington County is to create an institution that offers a technical/occupational track and a baccalaureate liberal arts track side-by-side. The Joint Committee on Finance of the Wisconsin legislature voted 12 to 4 in favor of a pilot project in the county that would combine the assets of the University of Wisconsin -Milwaukee at Washington County and the West Bend campus of the Moraine Park Technical College.
Republicans on the committee were so convinced of the logic of combining the two campuses of the two colleges that they included an appropriation of $3.35 million to help make it happen. Washington County has indicated it would provide an equal sum of money as a match.
Presumably, the combined funds, plus additional donations from the private sector, would be placed in a foundation to help students with scholarships. UWM-WC already has about $4 million in its scholarship endowment. And MPTC has a similar size endowment. Those funds could coordinate to provide major assistance for students seeking technical careers or professional careers that require a baccalaureate.
Washington County Executive Josh Schoemann has been adamant about the need for higher education in the county, including a four-year baccalaureate track. That could happen by combining one or two years at a community college, followed up with coordinated junior and senior years at a four-year college in the region.
That is already happening in six technical districts in the state that offer both technical and liberal arts tracks with follow-on linkages to different four-year colleges where appropriate.
The need for structural change in the higher education arena in Washington County was made clear by the findings of a Task Force created by Schoemann. The 11-person task force concluded that a 70% decline in students at the UWM satellite campus spelled an unsustainable future. At the same time, enrollments are off about 20% at the local MPTC campus. Those two challenges are not going to get any easier.
There are three major changes in our society that drive that conclusion:
- The number of high school graduates is falling off every year due to lower birth rates. Schoemann points to the West Bend School District, which had 500 graduates this year, but only 350 freshmen.
- High school students are picking up a bunch of college credits while still in high school through advance placement courses, dual enrollments with a college and on-line courses. Some have earned more than 15 credits toward the 30 required in a freshman year. They are nearly sophomores at graduation. That cuts the market for two-year colleges dramatically.
- With only a 2.7% unemployment rate locally, students are going straight to the hot job market where starting pay has risen to respectable levels. Short of a recession, the severe labor shortage isn’t going away.
There are old-timers in the county who love the existing UW campus, understandably so. And for good reason — it worked great for 60 years. But we have to deal with reality of the present. Many colleges are stressed and some have had to close.
We don’t want another closure of a two-year UW campus like what just took place in Richland County. The student count there had dropped to 60. The Washington County UW campus once had about 1100 students. At last count, it had a head count of about 370 and a full-time equivalent of 270. The West Bend MPTC campus also has unused classrooms. More capacity will soon be added at the West Bend campus.
The Schoemann task force concluded with a vision for a community college that would be bustling with learning and activity. That would include: the robust student services that already exist at the MPTC campus, the opportunity for intramural athletics that once existed at UWM-WC, a social gathering union and a warm food café.
The legislature asked for a joint plan to put the two campuses together. It remains to be seen how that integration plan is crafted, but it is absolutely crucial work for the good of the families in the county.
For six decades students have had a great way to start their post high school education in their pursuit of careers right here at home. We owe the next generation of students the same level of opportunities.
Further, we need to make their educational journeys affordable, in contrast to the god-awful cost at many established colleges. The new funding for scholarships and the lower tuition fees at a community college will make that possible.