By Amanda N Wegner
If you want to quickly join the workforce with a family- supporting career after high school, it pays to look at technical colleges. “Technical colleges provide individuals with access to high-quality education and training that leads immediately to satisfying jobs,” says Dr. Tim Casper, executive vice president – student affairs and institutional effectiveness at Madison College.
Technical colleges offer great value, but when it comes time for high school seniors to choose their next life step each fall, about two-thirds choose undergraduate enrollment at a four-year institution over two years at a technical college.
What drives this uneven split between four- year and two-year institutions and what are the benefits to pursuing a technical college education? Two experts, Casper of Madison College and Zina Haywood, executive president and provost of Gateway Technical College, talk about what students, young and old, are missing by overlooking the value of technical colleges.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in every year from 2000-2018, a higher percentage of high school graduates enrolled in four- year institutions compared to two-year institutions. Over that same time period, the percentage of high school graduates enrolling in two-year institutions, includ- ing technical colleges, increased, from 21% in 2000 to 25% in 2018.
“I think there had historically been a lack of understanding of what tech colleges can provide to graduates, that going to a technical college is your second choice as a young person,” says Casper.
There are several reasons why more people, both recent high school graduates and returning adults looking to upskill, reskill or pursue a new field, are looking to technical colleges. One reason is that the schools have advanced with the times to provide the education that employers need now and tomorrow. “We aren’t your grandmother’s tech college,” says Haywood of Gateway, which was Wisconsin’s first technical school, founded in 1911. “We add new programs each year and our technology and facilities are updated regularly.”
Wisconsin’s technical, vocational and adult education schools came together in 1994 as one technical college system. Since then, Wisconsin’s technical schools have evolved and risen in rank in the state. They also have received greater support from government, business and education.
In the past decade, explains Casper, the state of Wisconsin has put an increased emphasis on the value of a technical college education. This has included support from the governor’s office, both former Gov. Scott Walker and current Gov. Tony Evers, major business and industry organizations, K-12 education partners and others.
“We’ve worked hard to show the value of technical college, and that it’s a choice you can feel good about,” says Casper.
In addition to support from the state, Wisconsin’s technical colleges are invest- ing time and effort into sharing their institutions’ value proposition by engaging prospective students with recruiters and through increased marketing, says Casper.
Some schools, such as Gateway, are also offering programs to help students make their college dreams a reality. Through the Gateway Promise program, eligible high school seniors can attend Gateway tuition- free. The program helps fill the gap between financial aid and the cost of Gateway’s tuition and fees for students who meet certain eligibility requirements. There is a similar program, Promise 2 Finish, for adult learners 23 and older who have earned some college credits, but have not completed their degree. “At technical colleges, we make life changing education opportunities a reality,” says Haywood.
One challenge to elevating technical colleges has been clarifying what “technical” means.
“Some don’t understand what ‘technical’ means. It’s long been thought of as the trades: welding, building, plumbing, CNC machining. But it’s also criminal justice, childcare, civil, electrical and biomedical engineering, and health care,” says Haywood.
Technical colleges also offer programs in automotive technologies. “Automotive is not what it used to be,” says Haywood. “Cars are now computers on wheels, and skills required are not what they were even five to 10 years ago.”
They also offer advanced manufacturing. “Manufacturing today goes beyond production. It includes automation and robotics,” notes Haywood. She explains how advanced manufacturing processes are using smart technologies, which have evolved into the fourth industrial revolution. “Industry 4.0 is a lot more intricate than what many people think it is,” she says.
Technical colleges also offer a wealth of high-tech programs in information technology, programming, cybersecurity, networking, data analytics and the like. “Today, every business is a technology business, and they need people with these skills to keep their businesses running and secure,” says Casper.
What truly sets a technical college education apart from a more traditional four-year program is the applied nature of the education. “Our courses and programs are really industry-focused,” says Haywood. “Each has an advisory committee of business and industry leaders who tell us the skills students need now and in the future — the cutting-edge technology they’ll use. Students will have the learning experiences that they will see on the job.”
While technical colleges are better positioned in the marketplace today than they were a decade ago, they still face some continued challenges and misconceptions. One such misconception is that technical college is a destination only for those with less-than-great grades. “Technical college is not a second choice just because you didn’t have great marks,” says Casper. “You could have really great marks, and a tech college might be a great place to get an education in an industry you’re personally passionate about.”
Another misconception is that technical colleges aren’t held to the same standards as four-year institutions, but they are, says Haywood. “One thing people don’t realize is that we are accredited by the same entity as UW system schools and all private colleges and universities,” she says. “We all have to have the same standards.”
Similarly, instructors are held to high standards, too. “The quality and education level of our faculty is bar none,” says Haywood. “Over two-thirds have a master’s degree or higher.”
In addition, most have industry experience, says Casper, which is critical in the technical college setting. “These instructors have experience in industry, not just academics. They have done the work, for some period of time, in the same industry space they are teaching in.”
There is also a false belief that technical colleges don’t yield well-paying jobs, says Haywood. The average salary for a graduate with an associate of applied science degree is $45,000 per year. For a one-year diploma or certificate program, it is $38,000. “These are good jobs that our students are getting,” she adds.
Another falsehood is technical colleges offer no access to financial aid. However, students can apply for state and federal financial aid for technical college. At Gateway, nearly 60% of students get some sort of financial aid.
And finally, contrary to belief, technical colleges offer robust opportunities for student life with co-curricular and extracurricular programs and clubs, sports, service-learning opportunities, even study abroad experiences. In addition, student support services and academic and career counseling are available.
“We offer excellent educational experiences within the technical college system,” says Casper. “You’re going to learn the skills you need, as well as some things you might not have thought about the job. You’ll get to learn what employers expect and the competencies required. You’ll learn how to engage with coworkers or customers. The things you’re going to get exposed to at a technical college will help you be satisfied and successful in your career.”