Higher Education – WI Technical College System – Built for this Moment

Our final piece in the higher education series focuses on the Wisconsin Technical College System. According to 2019 Legislative Fiscal Bureau Informational Paper #31, “The nation’s first system of vocational, technical and adult education was established in Wisconsin in 1911…The original vocational systems were run by public school systems or by separate, citywide technical school districts. However, by 1965, a statewide system had been developed which consisted of two interacting components, The State Board of Vocational, Technical and Adult Education and local vocational college districts, which shared responsibility for the system.”  The system name was changed to the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) in 1994; it is divided into 16 districts, has 48 main and satellite campuses, serving approximately 315,000 people annually. Today, governance of the WTCS is shared between the WTCS Board and the individual district boards.  The WTCS Board is responsible for planning and coordinating the system’s programs and activities. While the district boards complete local planning, budgeting, curriculum and course development, and program implementation.

When asked what she believes the role of the WTCS will be in the next decade, WTCS President Dr. Morna Foy told The Wheeler Report , “Our role will be a prominent one because our 16 colleges provide affordable, flexible and career-driven education that allows individuals to efficiently meet their needs and goals. The fact that our colleges are so closely aligned with the specific business needs of the communities they serve also creates a strong position for us. Employers are in on the ground level of our program design – as well as frequent modifications to those programs, to reflect the pace of change in the workplace – so they know what they’re getting in our graduates. In turn, our grads have the confidence that the skills they’ve acquired have immediate market value. The result is a consistently high employment rate, in Wisconsin, for our graduates – 94% last year. Our mission is written into state statutes and has changed little over the more than 100 years of our existence. However, the mix and content of our programs constantly evolves based on the needs of employers, as well as the goals and learning styles of our students. As a result, I believe we offer a unique value proposition to students and employers in this time of rapid change in higher education.”

The WTCS provides educational opportunities in many forms: 1.) collegiate transfer; 2.) associate degree; 3.) technical diploma; 4.) registered apprenticeship; and 5.) continuing education (vocational-adult, basic skills education, avocational or hobby courses, and community activities). Foy was asked about the students attending WTCS and the opportunities available to them, she said, “The breadth and depth of learning that happens at Wisconsin’s technical colleges sometimes surprises those who are less familiar with us. In Wisconsin, we have high school students earning an associate degree from a technical college before they receive their high school diploma. Students earn technical college credits and credentials at no cost to them, a value we placed at more than $29 million for the well over 51,000 students who earned more than 216,400 credits at a technical college last year. Of course, graduating high school seniors and many returning adults also enroll in our more than 500 programs to enter or advance along their chosen career path. Many of these programs are flexible and accelerated, allowing students to learn in a place and at a pace that works best for them. The result is steady pipeline of skilled talent from programs in health care, agriculture, manufacturing, Information Technology, transportation, business, skilled trades and law enforcement, among many, many others. Many students also begin at a technical college with the plan to transfer to a four-year college or university. Of course, all students expect general education and some other courses to transfer efficiently, whether they’re transferring right away or end up pursing further education in the future. Increasingly, our strongest four-year partners see the wisdom in program-to-program transfer agreements that allow our students to enter with junior status. Our colleges are also the primary provider of classroom instruction for the earn-while-you-learn registered apprenticeship program, in partnership with the Department of Workforce Development. Employers – well beyond skilled trades – are increasingly interested in this model, with new apprenticeships coming on-line regularly. Students also look to technical college for basic skills instruction, often to improve English language proficiency, math or reading skills, or to earn a high school equivalency credential. For some time, the colleges have also working with jails and correctional facilities to provide basic skills instruction, but also – increasingly – to provide the type of valuable skills training that contributed to the talent pipeline and greatly decreases recidivism. Lastly, just as we provide an entry-level talent pipeline for employers, we are also their close partners in succession planning. The valuable customized instruction and technical assistance that our colleges provide in every sector – health care to agriculture, manufacturing to hospitality – is part of the reason that 98% of the employers who hire our grads say that a technical college is important to the success of their business. Overall, our colleges enroll more than 300,000 students each year when all of these types of learning are included. They also provide countless hands-on career awareness and exploration opportunities for prospective students of all ages to foster interest in technical college offerings.”

Demographic changes are impacting institutions of higher education, with 18-year-olds dropping by 25% by 2025, and WTCS is no different, yet Foy said the average age of WTCS students pursuing traditional credential (associate degrees or technical diplomas) is 27 years old. She explained that when all other factors are added, the overall average age for students attending WTCS is 32 years old. Foy said, “We know how to meet the needs of adult students.” She went on to explain, “Historically, students of color have made up a larger proportion of our enrollments than is reflected in the state’s population as a whole. We also routinely work with low income and first-generation students, English Language Learners, disabled populations and those working toward re-entry after being incarcerated.”

Foy is confident of the role of the Technical College System in a changing higher education landscape saying, “I believe that in most cases, Wisconsin’s technical colleges are leading the change. Whether it’s meaningful, hands-on career exploration, the scope and value of dual credit for high school students, the ability to meet the learning needs of all students or the focus on efficient credit transfer, we are in or leading every conversation.” Foy concluded by saying, “Wisconsin’s technical colleges were built for this moment.”