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Two-Year Wisconsin Colleges Seek To Offer Four-Year Degrees

MADISON, Wis. – The University of Wisconsin’s two-year colleges could soon have the power to offer limited four-year degrees under a plan aimed at serving adult students in mostly rural areas.

The proposed bachelors of applied arts and sciences degree would be geared toward “place-bound students” who have earned associate’s degrees but cannot transfer to finish at four-year universities. Courses would emphasize skills like problem-solving and communication that local employers say are needed to improve their work force.

University officials say the degree would be a cheaper and better alternative to distance learning programs offered by for-profit colleges such as the University of Phoenix. The Board of Regents were to consider the plan during a meeting at UW-Milwaukee on Thursday.

Completing the program would offer the unemployed a better chance at finding work and helping those already with jobs advance in their fields, said David Wilson, outgoing chancellor of the 13 two-year college system and UW-Extension.

“We want to provide these individuals around the state with a high-quality, reasonably priced baccalaureate degree that will enable them to contribute handsomely to their local area and stay in the region,” Wilson said. “We think this is a very, very innovative degree.”

The plan would give five campuses—UW-Baraboo/Sauk County, UW-Barron County, UW-Marshfield/Wood County, UW-Richland, and UW-Rock County—the ability to offer the degrees. The mission of the college system would be changed, which means other campuses could follow suit after a five-year trial period.

Wilson said the campuses were chosen because their populations lag behind the state average for four-year degree holders. Many of them have also been hit hard economically, with layoffs and plant closings in those areas in recent years.

The plan departs from the traditional mission of the colleges, which have long served as an entry point to higher education. They date to 1923, when UW-Extension started offering classes for freshmen and sophomores in Milwaukee. Similar centers opened around Wisconsin to meet demand after World War II.

In 1971, the two-year college system was created when the University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin State University merged into the UW System. Today they enroll 13,800 students, many of whom will transfer and complete degrees at one of Wisconsin’s four-year schools.

Public and private two-year colleges in 18 states confer limited four-year degrees, and schools in several others are seeking that power to better serve their areas, said Beth Hagan, executive director of the Community College Baccalaureate Association in Fort Myers, Fla.

Hagan said the proposed Wisconsin degree was unique in that it would mix a liberal arts background with practical work force skills. “The two-year system should be praised for being flexible enough to adapt to what they have identified as a local work force need,” she said.

She added that Wisconsin is unusual in that regents can approve the degree-granting power instead of the Legislature, which is typical elsewhere. Sometimes, plans get bogged down by lobbying from four-year universities and for-profit schools opposed to what they view as an unwelcome entry on their turf, she said.

To satisfy such concerns, Wisconsin’s plan is limited to five campuses and requires each to team up with a partnering four-year university to deliver courses. They will include a mix of distance and online learning and traditional face-to-face instruction.

Enrollment is expected to hit 250 students within the first three years, and costs will rise to $1.1 million per year, planning documents show.

Tuition will cover the bulk of the costs, but rates have not been set. Wilson said they would be higher than a traditional UW degree but less than what for-profit schools charge. Regents could approve the plan as early as August, which would allow the programs to start in fall 2011.

Wilson said the degree was shaped by a survey of 500 local employers that found they want workers who can work in teams, communicate with colleagues, write well and think critically.

But he said employers also insisted the program go beyond book learning. That’s why seniors will be required to complete a seminar in which they work with professors on a project on a community problem to help launch the next phase of their careers.

“What we’ve heard from employers is,” he said, “if we do this and do this well, the majority of them will see merit in this and hire our graduates.”

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