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Wisconsin Administrators See Rising Interest in Technical Colleges

Nationwide, technical and community colleges have not yet recouped enrollment lost during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Wisconsin school administrators say students' interest in tech schools is increasing significantly.

Mid-State Technical College
Photo credit: John R. Hartman, Mid-State Technical College Facebook page
(TNS) — As attitudes about college shift among some high schoolers, many are seeking out two-year technical colleges as they weigh convenience and cost.

Several high school administrators told the Wisconsin State Journal that they are seeing increased interest in technical colleges from their students, both in dual enrollment classes, which allow students to earn college credit in high school, and overall interest in those colleges for their post-secondary plans.

"When I think back to my high school days, it seemed like four-year college was the only choice," Wisconsin Dells High School Principal Allison Hoch said. "And now our kids are really split between a two-year tech school program, four-year college, a little bit of military and then some go directly into the workforce. So, it's really neat to see that all options are viable and that we've got a number of kids going into each one, and that we really work to prepare kids for whatever choice they choose."

The vast majority of dual-enrollment classes is in the technical college system, where nearly 55,000 high school students either received credit during the high school day or attended classes at a technical college, according to the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

Most of the students the State Journal interviewed in the Mid-State Technical College district had heard of the college, which has a branch in Adams and others to the north in Wood and Portage counties. But few knew much about the UW system beyond the Madison campus. That's due in large part to the technical college's monthly presence in high schools, Dean of Recruitment and Admissions Jackie Esselman said.

"We are obviously a technical resource for how to do things, but we're not trying to take over a guidance counselor's role in any sort of way, shape or form, but just be that resource for post-secondary education," Esselman said.

Nationwide, technical and community colleges have not recouped enrollment lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite growth in 2022 and 2023, enrollment at public two-year colleges is down 12.5 percent from 2019, according to National Student Clearinghouse data.

But enrollment is rebounding, and Wisconsin high school administrators say students' interest in tech schools has increased significantly.

Mid-State Technical College saw the largest increase of all Wisconsin tech colleges in the 2022-23 year, with nearly 30 percent higher enrollment over the prior year. Enrollment at Southwest Tech, the only public two-year college for much of southwestern Wisconsin after UW-Platteville at Richland's closure, increased by 10 percent.

Communities have high regard for their local colleges, especially technical colleges, said Kathy Cramer, a UW-Madison political scientist who studies political resentment in rural communities.

"People saw that as a really important alternative," Cramer said. The mindset, she said, was, "'Why spend my money (on college) when you can just get a two-year degree and get right into a job?'"

A peek inside high schools makes it clear that districts, their taxpayers and donors are taking notice of the shift and investing in state-of-the-art facilities.

At Mauston High School, a modern blue archway leads into the career and technical education department. Floor-to-ceiling windows put 3D printers and shop classes on display. In the Nekoosa School District, career and technical education starts as early as elementary school. At Wisconsin Dells High School, which opened its new building four years ago, a stunning career and technical education center boasts manufacturing machines, an automotive shop and welding.

"We don't need just four-year college students in our community; we need all types of students," Hoch said. "If only 50 percent of your kids are going to college, what are the rest of those kids doing? How can we further our community by preparing more of those kids? (If) we can prepare more of them for a CTE career, then we're growing our community and our state."

Regional technical college campuses also bridge the gaps for western Wisconsinites who have few higher education options.

In the south and central western areas of Wisconsin, technical college campuses far outnumber UW system campuses. Even so, Richland, Iowa, Lafayette and Crawford counties are left without any college options.

Technical college students are often working adults who are going to school to boost their incomes, either in their current job or in a new one, said Shawna Marquardt, director of regional MATC campuses. It's a different environment than other college campuses — students pop in and out of classes throughout the day as they juggle academics with work and family schedules.

Eighty-seven percent of MATC students are enrolled in Madison-based programs or are online-only. But for the 3,200 students who attend in person at the four regional campuses, having a closer location makes their education more attainable than if they had to commute to Madison. Some already commute up to 45 minutes to regional campuses, Marquardt said.

"Asking students to drive round-trip for three, four hours, on top of full classes, at the price of gas is pretty insurmountable, especially for first-generation college students," Marquardt said.

Mid-State is similar: More than half of its students are online-only or attend its main campus in Wisconsin Rapids. But 4,300 students rely on access through the Adams, Stevens Point or Marshfield locations. The Adams location, which is the only higher education option in a county of 21,226 people, has 632 students.

Mid-State upgraded its former outreach center in Adams to a full branch campus five years ago after seeing the need in the area, Dean of Recruitment and Admissions Jackie Esselman said. Because the Adams branch has limited degree options, Mid-State operates a free shuttle service equipped with Internet access between the other campuses and to Adams-Friendship High School.

"We were recognizing that some of our students maybe did not have reliable transportation in order to make it to class," Esselman said. "And over the last two to three years, we've really grown participation in that shuttle, whether it's just to save on gas money ... or it is that reliable transportation piece where they are able to make it to class."

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.

©2024 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.