Rising Phoenix jump starts degrees

Wisconsin educrats and community leaders involved in higher education have been working hard to come up with solutions to the declining college enrollments that undermine their operations and threaten their existence.

With the exception of a task force in Washington County that recommended merger of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee at Washington County (UWM-WC) and the West Bend campus of the Moraine Park Technical College (MPTC), not many concrete ideas have emerged to reverse the two-decade enrollment slide at most Wisconsin colleges.

But one innovative concept stands out. That’s the increasing use of what’s called dual credits, under which high school students take classes on a near-by college campus and get credits for both a high school diploma and progress toward college degrees. The boldest use of dual credits has been at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay (UW-GB) where students can graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate degree.

In effect, if they do the work and take enough dual credit classes, they become juniors in a baccalaureate journey when they graduate. That’s a tremendous advantage. They have cut their baccalaureate time in school and expenses in half.

With the dual credit students added to their enrollment numbers, UW-GB has shown enrollment increases at all four of its campuses. When the top guns at the University of Wisconsin System decided in 2018 to consolidate the 13 two-year UW colleges into the state’s comprehensive four-year colleges, UW-GB picked up the campuses at Sturgeon Bay, Marinette, and Manitowoc.

All four now have a head count greater than what they had in 2018.

Part of its success has come from a philosophy of fully integrating the four campuses. Professors at the satellite campuses now teach courses on the main campus in Green Bay. That allows vacancies to be filled with under-utilized PhDs and savings to result from the consolidation.

The UW-GB program is called Rising Phoenix after the college’s Phoenix symbol.

UW-GB has also made great efforts to make sure that the curricula on its four campuses align tightly with the work force needs of the regional economy. Shipbuilding, for example, is a major economic driver in both Sturgeon Bay and Marinette. Those employers need a work force with technical skills in areas like welding and electronics offered at the technical colleges and they also need engineering talents. That made for a convincing case for a fourth engineering school at UW-GB that is now operational.

In contrast, the less integrated UW colleges have seen their enrollments drop as much as 70%. The saddest outcome was at UW-Richland Center, which was closed by UW President Jay Rothman when its head count dropped to about 60.

In Washington County, the concept of a community college was endorsed unanimously by County Executive Josh Schoemann’s 11-person task force and by a 19-2 vote by the county board. A pilot project to that effect was included in the state budget drafted by the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee.

Unfortunately, neither UWM nor MPTC saw the merits of a community college that offers a technical-occupation track alongside a baccalaureate professional track. (Six community colleges already exist within the Wisconsin Technical College System. Rhinelander’s Nicolet College has a half-century history.)

When Democratic Gov. Tony Evers played politics and did a line-item veto of the GOP-endorsed Washington County pilot, a UWM spokesperson expressed “gratitude.” MPTC was also happy with the veto, having openly opposed the merger. Indeed, MPTC moved into high gear to compete directly with UWM-WC in general studies/liberal arts.

The technical colleges were given a competitive boost by the UW Board of Regents when it adopted a policy that UW would honor all credits coming out of the state’s 16 technical college districts. It was a strategic blunder that encourages redundancy.

In the aftermath, the search is on for new ways to enable the state’s two-year colleges to survive, including:

  • UWM Chancellor Mark Mone created a work group to come up with innovations that can save the day for his two satellite campuses in West Bend and Waukesha. It will report by Sept. 1. It has held hearings; there have been no early indications of where the group of UWM professionals is headed.
  • UWM is reportedly exploring “certificates” that would be issued for skill credentials. That approach could be called “a quilt approach” in which students earn recognition for a variety of achievements. It could involve diplomas, certificates, associate degrees, testimonials, and baccalaureate degrees. The student would have a “stackable” array of evidence for his or her competencies.
  • Automatic enrollment of juniors in high school was aired by the Washington County Task Force. It is being tried in other parts of the country. High school seniors in good standing would automatically be admitted as freshmen in a college.

Whether any or all of the new solutions amount to a viable business plan remains to be seen. But it is obvious that bold reform like the Rising Phoenix program is called for. Status-quo management won’t meet the threat posed by continuing, sharply declining enrollments.

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