Are community colleges a good answer?

More than two dozen leaders in Washington County showed up last week to show their support for West Bend’s two-year liberal arts campus. Despite grievous enrollment declines, there was unanimity that some way forward must be found for the satellite campus of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) at Washington County.

“We are running out of teenagers,” said Mark Mone, UWM chancellor. He convened the listening session and brought along Mike Falbo, interim president of the University of Wisconsin System (UWS).

The biggest challenge facing the UWS generally is declining enrollments. The foremost cause of a 40% drop in enrollment from 2011 to 2019 is an ever smaller number of high school graduates year after year.

Put another way, “We have a fertility problem,” commented Dave Stroik, an architect long associated with the university and the local campus.

The attendees had a wide variety of comments and insights. One common refrain was the effect of higher wages in the private sector, such as $17 per hour for shelf-stocking jobs. Some young people opt for a job rather than a college pathway and the student debt that it entails.

State Sen. Duey Stroebel pointed out that the West Bend campus was at 1112 students in 2010 and only 387 last year.

What to do about it? Here are some of the ideas that were surfaced by the community leaders:

  • Dual enrollments that enable students to go to high school while taking courses at the local UW college.
  • Programs that combine school and work, such as a youth apprenticeships. The young adults go to school in the morning and work in the afternoon. It combines school and workplace learning, a powerful combination. It exists at the high school level. Why not at the associate degree level?
  • Stroebel called for increased transferability between the technical colleges and the UW System.
  • Possible delivery of college training at large employers’ facilities. SteelCraft and Signicast in Hartford have ramped up in-house training.
  • Incorporation of online learning with in-person instruction on the physical campuses.

Washington County Executive Josh Schoemann called for massive reform of higher education to satisfy workplace needs. “Let’s face it, we’re just running out of people, not just teenagers.” Like many other leaders in the state, he called for strategic thinking on where the state is going with education. “We need our best brains working on it.”

Christine Fiaska, a retired executive from Northwestern Mutual Life and a member of the UWM Foundation, said, “Young people are going to college in very different ways. A lot of change has to happen.”

Underlying the diverse comments was the reality that some of the 26 campuses in the UW system will have to close if innovative solutions aren‘t forthcoming. One common reform that has been raised across the state is the combination of the state’s two-year college systems – the 13 UW colleges and the 16 Wisconsin Technical College Districts.

The UW Board of Regents took a big step in that direction recently when it created a policy of honoring the associate degrees of the technical colleges at all of the UW System four-year universities. The big departure in that policy is honoring the associate degrees in technology and the associate degrees from the technical colleges in liberal arts. That puts the technical college system in direct competition with the UW colleges in the arena of the liberal arts.

From the perspective of the UW colleges, that new competition is the last thing they need.

The big question that arises is: Where is the best home for our precious two-year UW colleges? Clearly, they have not fared well as satellites of the four-year campuses. No compelling path forward emerged during last week’s hearing.

The case can be made for the creation of a community college system, the structure used in many other states. Those community colleges would operate under the auspices of the technical college system that enjoys a very stable revenue platform. They rely on a small percentage of the property tax on every home statewide, so yields big revenues in a painless way.

West Bend is a good case study of how it might work. The two beautiful campuses in the community would work together to offer pathways for students in both STEM education and liberal arts, or a combination of both.

They would continue to serve as feeders to the four-year colleges now that the UW regents have decided to honor all the credits for two-year associate degrees.

If we get creative, the five K-12 districts in the county could also use the resources of the two-year colleges.

Correction: In last week’s column, I wrote that Donald Trump was only the second incumbent president to be denied reelection. I was way off. He actually became the tenth incumbent to lose office.

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