WAUKESHA, Wis. — Technical colleges are trending in a different direction than four-year institutions when it comes to enrollment numbers.
Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) President Dr. Morna Foy said the system experienced consistent growth since 2001. Then, the pandemic happened.
“It’s a little bit different for technical colleges than traditional four-year colleges because we have a typically inverse relationships with employment trends,” Foy said. “During the pandemic, we saw a time of bad economy, folks losing their jobs and yet, saw a drop in enrollment.”
Foy said this is due in large part to the types of students who enroll at technical colleges to begin with. The majority of them are adults who work, support their families and attend college part-time.
“We heard a lot of things like, ‘I don’t have child care for my kids,’ ‘My kids are home now learning virtually’ or ‘All the wage-earners of the family had been sent home,’” Foy said.
As traditional four-year colleges continue to struggle with enrollment decline, Foy said WTCS has seen enrollment growth over the last couple of years. She said she expects that trend to continue.
“We saw a 10% growth in headcount between 2021 and 2022,” Foy said. “Preliminary enrollment numbers show another 5% growth this year, which puts us back to 2018 levels.”
Foy credited this increase in enrollment to the way technical colleges are structured. She said they can adapt to the needs of students and what jobs are in-demand.
Technical colleges traditionally also offer a more affordable education for students.
“When there is no longer a need for programs or services in our communities, we have the ability to discontinue them and replace them with things that are needed,” she said. “Our students know that at the end of their educational journey, there is a real job opportunity.”
Waukesha County Technical College (WCTC) saw a particularly large increase in new-student enrollment this fall. That number increased by 21% in comparison to last year.
“We increased full-time equivalent students by 11% this year,” said John McGreal, WCTC’s dean of enrollment. “We’ve increased enrollment now two semesters in a row after a decline for the last twelve years.”
WCTC also had an increase in the number of students who signed up for dual-enrollment this year. Dual-enrollment programs paused during the pandemic, as high school students attended school virtually from home.
This year, McGreal said WCTC saw an additional 50 students sign up for its dual-enrollment academy, which offers 10 different programs from nursing to firefighter/EMT.
“The benefits of dual enrollment are limitless,” he said. “It helps students realize when they are in high school that they can achieve college in general.”
Dual-enrollment is an educational initiative that allows high school juniors and seniors to gain career experience on a college campus. They also earn college credits toward a degree before they graduate high school.
WCTC’s dual-enrollment academy opened more spots within some of its program this fall to accommodate for the increase of students enrolling.
“This is also helping us to create an educated and diverse workforce within the districts we serve,” McGreal said.
McGreal added that WCTC launched three new AI certificates this year and began a substance and drug abuse program.
“We’ve been able to quickly respond to the needs that students are telling us,” he said.
Foy echoed that sentiment.
“We are in the business of preparing people to be successful in their careers and that means evolving,” she said. “If our students need to do that, we need to do that too as institutions.”