Two-year colleges focus on more job-relevant curriculum

In what Chancellor Cathy Sandeen describes as a complete revamping, the University of Wisconsin’s two-year colleges and the University of Wisconsin–Extension are working to develop a more job-relevant curriculum.

The revamp was conceived prior to Sandeen becoming chancellor of the two organizations, but she’s enthusiastically on board because of the importance of making the UW colleges more relevant to students and employers.

“Over 50% of our students are first-generation college students,” Sandeen notes. “They are the first in their family to go to college, and they are there specifically for economic mobility. They want jobs. They want that bachelor’s degree. They see the promise and they see the benefits of getting a bachelor’s degree, and UW Colleges are the first step.”

Meeting the needs of employers for specific job-related skills occurs on two levels — broad and specific skills. The general skills — including “soft” skills — are the ability to think, problem solve, analyze, and communicate. Those are the broad skills that are important in the multiple jobs people have during their careers.

In essence, UW Colleges are taking the first two years of the University of Wisconsin degree and are connecting it to relevant, broad, job-related skills. In Wisconsin, the two-year colleges provide the first two years of a liberal arts education with an associate of arts and science degree, and six campuses currently offer a bachelor of applied arts and sciences degree-completion program.

As the arm of the UW System that has the largest number of nontraditional students, the colleges' mission is transfer. They provide the first two years of higher education to students whose goal is to transfer on and achieve a bachelor’s degree. Until now, they have been the traditional, lower-division courses.

In another year or so, after various elements of the new curriculum are piloted, it will be launched. “We’ve completely revamped it so that it’s much more job relevant,” Sandeen says. “Instead of having students in lectures, we have problem-based learning, experiential learning. The students are working in teams, and they are working on projects. If there are students who are working part time, they can develop projects that are related to their current job.”

Extending U-Dub

Sandeen is in charge of the 13 two-year UW campuses, as well as all of the UW–Extension. The UW colleges employ 830 faculty and staff with an operating budget of $138 million, while the UW–Extension employs 1,200 faculty and staff with an operating budget of $235 million. They serve as a gateway to the University of Wisconsin System for more than 14,000 students who otherwise might not be able to pursue a college degree.

She’s been in this role for two years now, and views the emerging approach as an example of a new trend in higher education toward getting students to start thinking about jobs and careers earlier in their academic development.

It’s also another way the university system has devised to fill some educational cracks. The UW Colleges and the UW–Extension offer collaborative degree programs online. These are programs that prepare students for specific jobs in a flexible format that fits within their lives.

The UW Learning Store, which offers micro-credentials for more specific skills, and the UW Flexible Option Degree program, a competency program designed for professional people who have started but not finished working toward a degree, are two other recent examples.

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Curriculum changes are not made in isolation. The colleges are connected to industry groups for input into what’s happening in their respective industries and what they are looking for in high-demand educational programs. They also work through workforce development boards and campus advisory boards, and they are in close communication with economists in the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension to remain up to speed on workforce trends.

The UW–Extension has a division for business and entrepreneurship that manages the small business development centers throughout the state. There are a variety of noncredit courses and programs specifically designed to help both new entrepreneurs launch businesses and, most importantly in Sandeen’s view, assist existing smaller businesses to increase their effectiveness and employ more people.

“The most important things would be our focus on flexible programs that allow existing employees to advance their skills and their abilities, and we work with existing employers who are interested in sending their own employees back to school to enhance their education,” Sandeen says. “That’s a known retention device, and it’s something employers in the area are aware of — that we are willing to work with them to help get their employees into an appropriate program.”

Unkindest cuts

Gov. Walker’s controversial UW budget cuts have caused the university system to undergo significant reorganizations, but Sandeen sees an upside. “That’s really allowed us to focus on what’s most important,” she states, “and we really have redesigned much of our organization from top to bottom, again with a focus on relevant and flexible and digital.”

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