An educational opportunity

UW reconfiguration generates options, optimism and obstacles to overcome

Posted on May 1, 2018 :: New North
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

It’s always frustrated Peter Wills that students seeking to become engineers needed to leave Northeast Wisconsin for their education.

That’s largely because once those students left, getting them back into the regional workforce was a much harder proposition. Even with engineering talent in high demand, once a student departed the region for school, it often followed their career would start away from home as well.

But that frustration is changing to optimism with the recently announced reorganization plans for the region’s University of Wisconsin campuses.

“A big part of our retain, grow and attract strategy for talent is to keep as much talent here locally as we can,” Wills, executive director of Progress Lakeshore, says. “If kids are able to start in a place close to home, and not have to take on a huge debt, we can get them into the workforce much easier, and that’s a big win.”

The changes that have Wills so optimistic will integrate the 13 two-year UW campuses with a neighboring four-year campus. In the New North region, the reorganization will result in UW-Manitowoc, UW-Marinette and UW-Sheboygan joining UW-Green Bay. At the same time, UW-Fox Valley and UW-Fond du Lac will integrate with UW-Oshkosh.

Such a move will give prospective engineering students from the Manitowoc area a more direct educational path for one of the regional engineering technology degrees completed at UW-Green Bay, as well as the recently announced Richard J. Resch School of Engineering, part of the renamed College of Science, Engineering and Technology.

UW Regents approved the reorganization late in 2017. Since then, a variety of working groups has been working the intricacies of the move, from unifying records and online teaching tools, to reviewing curriculum and programs to determine how best to deliver education in the reorganized system.

The goals include more efficiency, streamlined management and, perhaps most importantly, increasing the number of educational paths for students and keeping workforce skills current.

“We have to make sure we maintain multiple pathways for students in this region to access higher education,” Andrew Leavitt, chancellor of UW-Oshkosh, says. “We need to maintain the access and tuition the two-year campuses provide. With the powerful new universities that will be created, we will have a wonderful blend of programming that goes all the way from certificate to associate degree to master’s degree.”

UW leadership initiated the realignment after several years of declining enrollment at the two-year UW campuses around the region. Yet, those campuses have been an important doorway to higher education for first-generation college students and often have been key players in providing flexible programs for ongoing education of the workforce, especially in their home communities.

Maintaining both of those elements is critical, Leavitt says. “We are going to have to rely on the expertise those campuses have developed to help us maintain that type of support.”

While there will no doubt be some bumps on the path to the realigned universities — the sheer size of the process and the federal approvals involved have pushed completion into 2019 — Cecilia Harry is optimistic the end results will benefit the regional workforce.

“We really have a great opportunity here. The education system is optimizing itself for the future,” Harry, executive director of Envision Greater Fond du Lac, says. “It’s necessary to make sure we have the local resources we know and love available for the regional workforce.”

Harry sees the reorganization not as a loss for Fond du Lac, but as an opportunity for the business community to build even stronger relationships with educators to ensure the workforce can access the skills needed to compete.

“This is really a great opportunity for the business community to weigh in and make sure we continue to have the education and training programs that need to be offered,” Harry says.

That responsiveness, as well as maintaining a local identity and culture, will be a vital role for the former two-year campuses to play, Martin Rudd, the acting dean for UW-Fox Valley and UW-Manitowoc, says.

That means being flexible enough to meet immediate workplace needs, as well as having the depth and breadth to offer multiple paths for a degree and meeting the growing demand for ongoing and lifelong education.

“It’s not just access, but resources,” Rudd says. “We are working to make sure we maintain the resources that communities turn to when they need that expertise.