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WITC president: Higher ed challenges keep changing
Photo: John Will
By RON BROCHU
Higher education has been on a roller coaster since World War II, with marketplace needs having a major influence on student pursuits. As the workplace has evolved, two-year, four-year and advanced degrees all have enjoyed some time in the limelight.
In recent years, much has changed. As public funding has declined, tuition has climbed substantially, vastly inflating the cost of post-secondary education.
Meanwhile, with the mass retirement of baby boomers, the need for workers has shifted from the office to the plant floor. Many current job vacancies are in skilled trades such as welding and machining, often assisted by computer-guided robotics.
“There’s a tremendous demand for workers with skills, but not necessarily those you receive with a four-year degree,” said John Will, who in September became president of the Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College system.
Yet persons having a high school degree aren’t qualified either. More education is required – perhaps two years, but sometimes even less – to enter some of today’s more plentiful positions, he said.
“We need to convince people that shorter than two-year degrees are the next step in education,” Will said, explaining his challenge. “We also need to have pathways in place so workers can move up to a two-year or four-year degree” as their career develops.
The Ladysmith native is well familiar with job needs within WITC’s footprint, which covers 10,000 square miles in Northwestern Wisconsin. He completed a double major in accounting and economics at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and later completed his master’s in School Business Management at UW-Whitewater.
He put those skills to work as controller of the Mahtomedi, Minn., school district, then as business manager at the Spooner school district. During that time, Will came to meet numerous college administrators at the WITC district office in nearby Shell Lake. When the opportunity arose, he became vice president and chief operating officer of the four-campus system.
“I got to know the college really, really well. I thought it was a great place. The employees at WITC have tremendous values about Northwest Wisconsin. They understand what employers need in the workforce,” he said in a Sept. 22 interview.
After six years with the system, Will changed directions for a short time.
“I worked in economic development for three-and-a-half years with Impact 7,” he said. Among his accomplishments at the non-profit development group was structuring the financing package for the Exodus expansion in Superior. “I enjoyed that work,” he noted, but felt pulled back to higher education when Bob Meyer left his position as WITC president to become UW-Stout chancellor. In July, Will was named Meyer’s successor.
His challenge is somewhat different than the top administrator at a four-year institution, in part because student demographics are not the same. The average age of a WITC student is 28, and the average commute is 38 miles each way. That type of student typically has been away from the classroom for a decade, might be a parent and might have to quit a job to resume learning.
“Think of the opportunity costs for doing that. It’s a pretty intimidating set of challenges,” he said.
Quite possibly, non-traditional students have more intense needs than a recent high school graduate who resides in a dorm. For example, Will explained, they may need support services to acquire adequate computer proficiency to succeed in the classroom or when taking classes online.
Once those students complete short-term training, he said, WITC should have mechanisms in place for them to resume their education at a later date to complete a two-year or four-year degree.
“Working with K-12 school districts is another area of emphasis for me. I know the challenges they face. WITC is the kind of place that can help with some of those challenges,” Will said.
One way to reach that goal is to match some K-12 curriculum with that taught at WITC so high school students can acquire college credits.
“Finding a way to make that happen in an area having more than 40 school districts can be a challenge,” he said, “but we must work with K-12 schools – meet students there and get them ready no matter what the challenges are.”
Success can be measured in a variety of ways.
“You can run the system really effectively and not hit the target,” Will said. “I want to make sure we hit the target. I really believe in WITC. It’s a critical resource for Northwest Wisconsin.”Previous BusinessNorth Exclusives Articles:
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