Workers Need More Educational Options

February 3, 2010

by Dan Clancy, System President, Wisconsin Technical College System

A Monday editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal supporting a pilot program to offer baccalaureate degree programs at University of Wisconsin two-year colleges missed an opportunity to highlight the true potential of the proposed degree as a new educational option for Wisconsin’s workers as a baccalaureate completion program for thousands of technical college graduates.

The Editorial Board notes that that the idea behind the new degree is “to target adults and non-traditional students…” and to build upon “existing credits earned previously through the technical [colleges or two-year UW Colleges]“ by adding new courses and awarding college credit for skills and knowledge acquired in the workplace.  If adults and non-traditional students with strong occupational skills are the target audience, admitting technical college associate degree graduate as juniors into the new degree program will ensure a well-prepared, abundant pool of qualified students.

While the UW Colleges should be commended for serving a record number of students, Wisconsin’s technical colleges enroll the majority of adult college students.  In fact, according to the latest available enrollment data, the four largest public undergraduate institutions in Wisconsin are UW-Madison, UW-Milwaukee, Milwaukee Area Technical College and Madison Area Technical College.  Last academic year, both Milwaukee and Madison Area technical colleges individually enrolled more degree students than all 13 UW Colleges combined.

History tells us that in Wisconsin, when the economy is poor, enrollments in higher education institutions increase as displaced workers and others seek to upgrade skills or pursue new careers.  Less well-known, however, is that technical college enrollments have continued to climb during the past decade, even during periods of healthy economic growth and abundant job opportunities.  The result is that full-time equivalent enrollments in Wisconsin’s technical colleges have increased about 26 percent in the past decade.  In the last year alone, technical college enrollments have increased an additional 15 percent statewide.  Even before this most recent enrollment surge, over 100,000 students, 40% of Wisconsin’s public college and university undergraduates, were enrolled in one of 300 technical college degree programs.  Lifelong learning is no longer a luxury.  It is an economic imperative for our state and the citizens who support the high quality of life that we all enjoy.

Our 16 technical colleges take seriously the call to set the stage for Wisconsin’s economic recovery and development of the state’s next generation workforce.  Technical college programs can achieve two important economic goals at the same time:  filling the critical skill shortages faced by Wisconsin’s highly-valued employers, and helping all workers earn a brighter economic future through expanded career and education opportunities.

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