Would offering more associate degrees at technical schools hurt Wisconsin’s 2-year colleges?

by Emma


Dive Brief:

  • A bill under consideration in Wisconsin would allow the state’s technical college system to offer more two-year degrees. 
  • The legislation, which is being sponsored by more than two dozen Republican state lawmakers, removes a provision from state law requiring the technical colleges to get approval from the state’s regent board to offer a full-time program whose credits are transferable to a four-year university.
  • Higher education experts say the change could help all of the state’s public colleges counter falling enrollment, but the university system argues it will increase competition.

Dive Insight:

Wisconsin announced plans in 2017 to consolidate its two-year and four-year public colleges. More recently, state officials have discussed shrinking Wisconsin’s postsecondary education footprint further by bringing together some technical colleges and two-year schools.

These initiatives have been billed in part as an attempt to improve enrollment. 

Enrollment across the 16-institution Wisconsin Technical College System fell 25% over the last decade to around 286,000 students in the 2019-20 academic year. The situation at the University of Wisconsin System’s two-year campuses is also dire, with its enrollment of 7,400 students in fall 2019 being around half of what it was a decade before. Enrollment at its four-year campuses fell only about 4% during that time.

The university system contends the bill would increase competition between the state’s technical colleges and its two-year schools and could cause some of the latter to close, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. A university system spokesperson did not respond to Higher Ed Dive’s request for comment Friday by press time. Six technical colleges offer associate programs now, the Journal reported.

Iris Palmer, a senior adviser at New America, a left-leaning think tank, thinks the change is more likely to create opportunities.

The bill would also lift a requirement that the technical colleges sign off on the university system adding training for “semiprofessional or skilled-trade” jobs.

“You’re allowing the different systems with their different orientations to experiment sort of on the … edges of what their core competencies are,” Palmer said. “These different types of institutions appeal to different types of students. And there is a good possibility that what you would end up doing is increasing access for everybody, instead of competing for students, specifically.”

It makes sense that the technical colleges would continue to want to build out their associate degree pathways to connect to the university system, Palmer said. 

Such an “evolution of mission” to offer associate degrees has occurred within technical college systems nationwide as employers in many fields increase the level of credentials they require, Palmer said, adding that in some cases these schools may be better-equipped than traditional liberal arts programs or even transfer-focused community colleges to address that demand. 

“Being able to offer a technical applied associate’s degree can be incredibly valuable in the field,” Palmer said.

Community colleges have also been focusing more on creating transfer pathways to bachelor’s degrees, and some four-year schools are investing in short-term programs.

Offering associate degrees through Wisconsin’s technical colleges could also help draw more people into the university system and help address demand for lifelong learning opportunities, said Maria Cormier, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center. 

“If your technical college system was designed to be a largely occupational training system, then how are you going to move those folks who may want to come back and get a two-year associate’s degree or a four-year degree?” Cormier said.



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