Brett Ranon Nachman
| Aug 14, 2018
For the sixth episode of the “WISCAPE Now in Higher Ed” podcast, we welcome Dr. Morna Foy, president of the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS), to discuss current challenges facing the state’s 54 two-year college campuses and its various stakeholders, most importantly its 308,000+ students.
Here are some highlights from the conversation.
- Since taking on the presidential role in 2013, Foy and her colleagues at WTCS have worked on numerous projects to improve the system's practices:
- First, they have addressed various issues around capacity-building, such as improving the system's image, sharing students' stories, and increasing lines of communication. Foy said that the system’s presence in the state’s awareness to make appropriate programmatic and policy changes is crucial. “You got to make sure your state supporters feel like they are getting a good return for that support,” Foy said.
- Second, perfecting self-assessment efforts has taken the form of eliciting student feedback to understand more about their college experiences and obtain data on retention and job placement rates. This input allows them to know that “our programs are the right ones and are matching the needs of employers in this state as they change, even if they change very rapidly,” Foy said. In an effort to be transparent, WTCS publishes results online, no matter how positive or negative the outcomes.
- Third, WTCS has focused on determining optimal methods of delivering programs and, at times, restructuring programs. Individual two-year colleges tend to have greater autonomy and room to experiment with programs, Foy said, and they also have opportunities to pursue grants collaboratively. “What we’ve learned from that practice is that there’s no need for all of us to take a risk, as long as the results from one person or one college’s efforts get shared, and that means the good things and the bad, so we don’t all repeat them,” Foy said. “That makes us an organization that can be in constant change without being in constant chaos and turmoil.”
- WTCS institutions often work cooperatively for mutually-beneficial endeavors and to serve students’ needs. For instance, a few colleges had assessed its healthcare programs and decided to develop a consortium for self-insuring themselves, thus becoming their own health insurance company. Nearly half of the 16 colleges now belong to the consortium, and one institution estimated this measure has saved them $2 million in the past two years with no changes to services. Additionally, a few WTCS institutions have joined the Achieving the Dream movement focused on supporting students across all aspects of their lives. However, testing this out with only a few colleges means not all students have access to these options. To reconcile this, WTCS has worked on having fellow colleges glean resources and information from institutions part of Achieving the Dream, even if not formally affiliated with the network. “Obviously every college cherishes its independence, every community has its own unique needs and expectations for its college, and those things have to come first, but I think this idea that ‘we are stronger together,’ ‘we are more effective when we are trying to get our message across or our story out there together,’” is pervasive, she said.
- Wisconsin’s two-year college students’ backgrounds and expectations continue to evolve. The average age of WTCS students is 32 years, though this is declining, and many students have a job or balance other demands, including raising families. Foy said WTCS continues to reevaluate how to “create the best possible opportunities for [students] to be successful in their academics, [and this] involves a whole spectrum of student supports that colleges around the country are working on how best to provide.” Transferability of credits remains a continued concern and issue, particularly based on the amount of horizontal transfer that unfolds as students hop from a two-year college to another two-year college and, at times, experience career changes and lapses in college enrollment. “The economy is changing too fast to allow us to think that we’re going to be able to learn everything we need to know in one educational experience,” she said. Two-year college students, like other students, are more mobile, and may already have postsecondary education credentials. Thus, they head to a two-year college in order to eventually enter a new industry or attain new skills.
Foy concluded the interview by indicating that too often higher education focuses on its strengths, as opposed to areas of improvement. “If you really focus on students’ experiences at your institutions, and you’re not afraid to see your warts, it’s truthfully one of the things I love best about the tech colleges is they aren’t afraid, because they’re so confident that if they know there’s a problem, that’s the first part of being able to do something about it.”
Listen to the full episode on PodBean, or by searching for "WISCAPE Now in Higher Ed" on iTunes.
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