A hundred years ago, brand new technical colleges in Wisconsin started welcoming fresh-faced, knicker-wearing boys who hoped to obtain training that would lead to a good career.
The students (and the clothes) have changed, but the basic mission of Wisconsin technical colleges has remained the same. Now, the four technical colleges that serve New North counties are celebrating 100 years in operation, having continued to grow and operate successfully while other public programs have come and gone.
“How is that possible?” says Morna Foy, executive assistant/vice-president of Wisconsin Technical College System. “Ultimately it comes down to the colleges having strong relationships with their communities and that they continue to provide service that the community finds of value.”
Way back when
In 1911, a time when the economy was transitioning from agricultural to industrial, state legislation launched a publicly funded education “bridge” for young students who were leaving school at age 14 but were not yet prepared for a career.
That’s why some of the early photos of technical college students show kids with no facial hair. Some of those early students might have taken classes like millinery (hat making) or horseshoeing (not the game).
“As technology emerged and evolved at that time, they needed people to know more, and to be able to do more with this equipment and technology,” says Susan May, president of FVTC. “They knew that they needed kids that would continue their school beyond the age of 14 and finish out a few more years.”
Now, the Wisconsin Technical College System is a network of 16 colleges with 48 campuses statewide, and includes Moraine Park Technical College in Fond du Lac, Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay and Lakeshore Technical College in Manitowoc. The average age of students is now about 30.
“When we first opened our doors in 1912, students came here so they could get ‘profitable employment’ in their chosen occupation,” says Karen Smits, vice president of college advancement at NWTC. “So the first classes were in woodworking, sewing, drafting and bookkeeping, and it was there to help people preparing for occupations, help families live a better life.”
Wisconsin was the first state in the nation to set up a technical college system, what were called “continuation schools” at the time, Foy says. Technical college districts were created to cover the entire state, and property taxes within those districts (as well as state funds) help fund the system.
“It was created so that every person could find their place in the workforce,” says Mike Lanser, president of Lakeshore Technical College. “When you look at it, we’re the only higher education system that has putting people to work in jobs as part of their mission, and I think that’s really at the basis of why we’ve stayed relevant.”
Not every state has such a comprehensive system. Nor does every state have a shared governance system between the state and local governing boards that help operate the system and determine direction on both a state and local level, Foy says.
“That model of governance has essentially survived a century of political change, government, reform, education reform,” Foy says. “It’s time-tested as being a very successful model for how to both infuse the interests of the state in a public higher education system and what direction it wants it to go, and what the economic and educational needs of the state are.”
At the same time, the technical colleges are each unique institutions that are responsive to the local needs of their communities, she says.
“You are going to get a very different feel and programmatic activity at the colleges depending on where they’re located and what the local community and economic needs are,” Foy says.
For example, this year NWTC rolled out a new associate degree in environmental engineering to work with waste and water technology, and next year plans to introduce a program in health and wellness promotion to help deal with the growing issue of health care costs and obesity. Fox Valley Technical College is in the middle of several expansion projects resulting from April’s successful referendum vote that will accommodate demand in several areas including health technology and public safety. MPTC is offering new programs in marketing and human resources, and Lakeshore has seen a boom in hospitality programs and recently updated others such as its nuclear technician program.
“I had somebody in here the other day that graduated in the ‘70s or ‘80s from a drafting program,” Lanser says. “I said, ‘Well, we still have those drafting tables but they’re in a closet.’ It’s not necessarily always about adding new programs, but making sure existing programs are current.”
In 1927 a publication by the Green Bay Board of Vocational Education wrote, “A rapidly changing world forces American citizen to face the constantly changing problems, and difficulties of an almost kaleidoscopic environment, even the individual himself, is in a ceaseless process of change in his employment, attitudes and ambitions, his social contacts, his interests and his opportunities.”
“We might have different technology, we might have global reach right now – students can go anywhere in the world once they graduate, but it seems that basic statement, that relevance of technical colleges, is the same now as it was at that time,” Smits says.
Foy says in some ways it’s kind of spooky how much the founders of the technical college system must have foreseen the future, at least in terms of the focus on career and technical education.
“They did foresee this focus on career and technical education, or what they used to call vocational education,” Foy says. “They saw that then, and it’s still our core business and our main strength today.”
They might not have anticipated how old the student body would become, Foy says. “But again, they always had programs for displaced workers.”
Smits says it’s hard to imagine what the future would have looked like in 1912.
“When I was growing up, I thought we would be like the Jetsons right now,” Smits says. “I’m still waiting for my little hovercraft. But when we talk about the philosophy and the relevance to the community, I think yeah, they probably did have it figured out to some degree.”
A hundred years from now (aside from an associate degree in hovercraft repair), there likely will be training in a different kind of technology that’s relevant to the economic development of a region, Smits says. Flex learning options will expand.
“One can only think of how learning will occur at that time, when we just have a little chip implanted in our brain, still we need to go somewhere and talk to the expert about what that chip in our brain is telling us,” Smits says.
Sheila Ruhland, Moraine Park president, expects that in 100 years Moraine Park will still be providing innovative education to the community, expanding to meet the needs of a changing economy (incorporating more green and economically-friendly materials along the way) and adapting to new technology.
“With recent developments in the Mars exploration rover, who knows?” Ruhland says. “Perhaps Moraine Park will have campus locations in Fond du Lac, West Bend, Beaver Dam and Mars! Moraine Park is looking forward to the next 100 years, keeping student achievement and continuous improvement at the forefront as we move into a new centennial.”
“I think you have glimmers of the future,” says May of FVTC. Simulation-based education could expand into many programs and become far more “real.”
“I swear one of these days our human patient simulators will walk the halls, and they will look as real as you and I look,” May says. “I know this is creepy sounding, but I think it could go that far. This whole virtual reality and learning virtually is going to become huge.”
Whatever education looks like, the basic mission will likely remain the same.
“I think the kind of education and training that’s going to go on in technical colleges 100 years from now will be unrecognizable because it will be so much more advanced,” Foy says. “But at the same time, it will look very familiar, because it is about preparing people to work.”