We wrap up this seven-part series by taking a look at a large budget cut that I did not expect last year – the sharp reduction in funding for the Wisconsin’s technical colleges. The magnitude and timing of the cut came as a surprise for me because the very weak economy has generated tremendous demand for education and training in the technical college system. As Paul Gabriel, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Technical College District Boards Association, wrote in a guest blog post for WCCF:
“Record numbers of young people recently out of high school and older displaced or underemployed workers are looking to Wisconsin’s technical college system as their best option for getting education and training that will qualify them for well-paid jobs. Businesses have also shown keen interest in the technical education system, as they grapple with a mismatch between the types of skills they are looking for in employees and the qualifications of Wisconsin’s jobless workers.”Despite the growing demand for technical college education, the 2011-13 state budget slashed their general state aid by 30%, or about $36 million annually. The Governor’s budget bill also imposed a strict freeze on their local property tax levies – prohibiting local property tax support from rising above the 2010 amount or tax rate unless approved by a referendum.
These changes have put Wisconsin’s technical colleges in a very tough position. Some have had to reduce classes or local services. Although most have continued to invest in the courses most critically in demand, that requires significant increases in tuition or eliminating other classes.
The result has been growing waiting lists and a reduction in access to courses in many of the technical colleges. Paul Gabriel summarized some of the implications of this trend:
“This affects families when parents are delayed or prevented from moving rapidly through programs to high-wage jobs. It also affects older children directly when technical college access is limited for new high school graduates. …Finally, difficulty gaining access to programs in health occupations, police and fire service, and child care can eventually have a negative impact on families if there are not enough highly trained individuals graduating to meet community needs.”Fortunately, the budget bill did not cut need-based financial aid for technical college students. However, the combination of a freeze in that aid, increased tuition and greater economic challenges facing many technical college students creates a widening “need gap” – which measures the shortfall between college cost and available student resources.
As we look ahead to the next biennial budget, we need to think about how technical college boards, the business community and state policymakers can work together to meet the education and training needs of Wisconsin’s workers and employers. Voters should ask candidates for their ideas about reducing waiting lists for in-demand courses and providing adequate need-based student financial aid.