Forward with NACCE

Preparing Students for the Changing Landscape of Higher Education: Insights from Dr. Morna Foy, President of the Wisconsin Technical College System

May 17, 2023 National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship
Forward with NACCE
Preparing Students for the Changing Landscape of Higher Education: Insights from Dr. Morna Foy, President of the Wisconsin Technical College System
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, Dr. Corbin welcomes Dr. Morna Foy, the president of the Wisconsin Technical College System, to discuss the changing landscape of higher education. Dr. Foy shares her non-traditional path to becoming a higher education leader and highlights the unique aspects of technical colleges in Wisconsin. They explore the importance of technical education in addressing workforce challenges and providing skills to meet employer demands and how the Wisconsin Technical College System focuses on education for work by offering programs based on demonstrated needs and job openings in the area. She emphasizes the commitment of technical colleges to help students transition from school to the world of work and highlights the partnerships with the private sector that contribute to their success. 

Dr. Corbin and Dr. Foy also discuss the innovative nature of technical colleges and their ability to adapt quickly to meet the needs of students and employers. They reflect on the impact of the pandemic and how it has led to increased innovation and interconnectedness within the higher education community. The episode provides valuable insights into the role of technical colleges in preparing students for successful careers and fostering economic growth in Wisconsin.

Tune in to this episode to gain a deeper understanding of the transformative power of technical education in the evolving higher education landscape.

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Morna: You know, we used to talk all the time about how we had to prepare high school students to be career and college ready. Now we talk about we as institutions need to be student ready. We need to deliver to them what they need. and it's gonna be very different depending on that individual.

Becky: Welcome to this episode of Forward with NACCE. I'm Rebecca Corbin and I'm really happy to have a special guest in our studio today. Dr. Morna Foy, who has a very interesting job, working in the state of Wisconsin in the higher ed system. So we're gonna get into all of that. So we're gonna find out about what she's, doing, these days in the changing landscape of higher education.

But I'd like to just begin by welcoming you, to our audience, to our conversation, and I would love for you to begin, just introduce yourself and maybe talk a little bit about your background. you know, some, where did you grow up? What, what were some, educational experiences that led you to doing the work you're doing today?

Morna: Well, thanks very much for having me, on the program. First of all, and secondly, I, I have a somewhat non-traditional path or history in terms of higher education leaders. I believe, because I didn't, come up through the ranks of academia. I was a legislative auditor, believe it or not, that was my first professional job here in Wisconsin. I am a Wisconsin native, and I've moved away a few times, different times, for school and work. But, found my way back. I, I actually live in the town I was born in, Madison, Wisconsin, our state capital, a few miles away from my place where I grew up.

But I am the president of the Wisconsin Technical College System. I found my way here through my job as an auditor for the legislature. I was a specialist in higher education issues, policy issues. In this state at that time, so in the late eighties, early nineties, the University of Wisconsin system here was a, it's a very large public four-year system, was of intense interest to our legislature, and we did a lot of reviews of them and different programs.

And as a, it's very common in policy work. There's often a, a control group or a comparative, analysis that's done. And so, By virtue of doing learning a lot and, and doing a lot of projects related to the university, I learned a whole lot about the Wisconsin Technical College system, which I did not know. And after about 10 years in that job, I was looking for a new opportunity and there was just a lot of things about the technical college system that appealed to me. 

It's a very broad, has a very broad range of responsibilities. It's would be, I think probably considered one of the most nonpartisan state organizations we have here. Because you're not a cabinet, the leadership is not a member of the governor's cabinet. So, it gives you an opportunity to, to really focus on the mission of the organization. that was very appealing to me coming from a nonpartisan, legislative service agency. 

And then of course, just the, incredible outcomes and incredible breadth of services and programs at the technical colleges offer the state of Wisconsin, really appealed to that policy. geek in me, that sort of government. you know, I grew up my whole life just being fascinated by public sector and the way that we organize ourselves to, live together in a better community. 

So technical colleges ticked a lot of boxes for me, and I came here as a policy advisor to the system board, system governing board. And that was 24 years ago. So in that time, I've worked my, my way up through the organization, to a vice presidency in government relations. and now as president, I'm in my 11th year as system president.

Becky: You have such an interesting background and you know, I don't think a lot of people really understand the role sometimes of technical colleges. So you said a couple of things I thought were particularly interesting about sort of the, the nonpartisan, kind of unifying nature and. That's always been my experience, not only with community colleges, but also with entrepreneurship, which is a, a space that NACCE occupies.

It's really about inclusion. It's about, making opportunity available to everyone. So it's really hard for people to be against that, by fighting against it, and I think especially, What you were talking about in the technical college space, and I know there's a lot of, skilled trades. the, the Wisconsin College that I'm the most familiar with is Fox Valley.

Dr. Susan May was the, retired now emeritus president of that institution. And I remember going out to visit her several years ago and seeing this big FedEx jet that, students were working on. And I was like, oh my goodness, how did you get that jet? And she said, I just got a call one day and they asked me if I wanted it.

And I thought that's the kind of leadership that really, seizes on opportunity. So I, I thought maybe you could speak a little bit more. About technical education, cuz I know there's a lot of workforce challenges, going on or I guess you could say opportunities, if you will, but maybe talk about what you see are some of the, you know, advantages of technical colleges and some of the, the jobs and, and skills that they're providing to, to employers.

Morna: Yeah, it's one of my favorite topics, so I'd be happy to. it's one of the things that's, Wisconsin is very fortunate, and also makes us a little bit unique. In that, we are the first state in the, in the United States to have a formal technical college system that, has both, it's a partnership, state and local, funded and governed.

Um, and it, it, it started over century. and it really put the focus on moving our highly agrarian based, economy and, and work opportunities, into the more urban industrialized setting. So we had a lot of folks, who were growing up on the farm, had a lot of skills, but they weren't necessarily the right skills for this new economy.

we, in the evolution of higher education, we've been very fortunate because we emphasize education for work. All of our decisions on programming are based on demonstrated need, so not just the need of students to wanna pursue a program or even the need of an individual employer, but that there are actually job openings available in the area in which this, the program is being offered.

And there's opportunities for students. We, we have a couple of different things in place that say, you know, if you graduate with a credential from a Wisconsin Technical College and you don't find employment within six months, We will help you to rectify that situation. We take that commitment very seriously.

So, I think there's a big trend now in higher ed to do more of that kind of need based, occupational based specific education and training. And there's a much bigger commitment, from the institutions themselves to help students with that transition from school into the world of work.

But traditionally, two-year colleges in this country have primarily filled the space of transfer. So it was an access function, especially after World War II when a lot of two-year colleges, whether you call 'em junior colleges or community colleges, or technical colleges, even, they were emphasizing, that first two years of a bachelor's degree. And that in some cases that is all they do. and now they're trying to move into technical education, in a bigger way. the, of course, the problem with that is that it's very, very expensive. 

You know, we have 18-year-olds here in Wisconsin, high school students here in Wisconsin that through their technical college, are accessing equipment and machinery and sophisticated Healthcare tools that are only available generally to, someone in a master's or a graduate, some kind of a graduate degree program in other states.

It's, it's an enormously costly, undertaking and it's something that really requires partnership with the private sector, which again, we had the benefit of building those relationships for a century, whereas if you're gonna just start to do it now, that's a very difficult, task to get. 

As, as Dr. May had told you the story of a, you know, FedEx in, in, in her, her area, offering up a, an airplane, it's. It just doesn't happen overnight. It's because they have built a relationship with the employers and business community over many years that, creates those kind of relationships. And we have a, we have many, many relationships where to fund student financial aid, to, to buy equipment, to update equipment in our colleges because of those private sector partnerships.

Promise programs are something you've heard about a lot. I'm sure there's a way to fund students and to encourage more young people to pursue college education. we also have promised programs in the Wisconsin Technical College System, but they're a hundred percent privately funded, so we don't fund them with the state tax dollars.

We didn't have to go and ask the legislature to give us money. We raised it and, and we started out in our urban, biggest college, Milwaukee area, technical College. lots of folks said, you know this, there's lots of communities here of need. It will never happen. in the very first year they started that program, it was overfunded. They exceeded their expectations, both in participation and in donations. 

And since that time, we've had the vast majority of the rest of our colleges. Also create them in, you know, the same thing. Well, we can't do that here in a rural community. We can't do that here at a small college, and it just hasn't turned out to be the case. there is just such a great relationship between our communities and our colleges, been built over time, that it allows us a lot of flexibility to do innovative things, to behave more entrepreneurial as, as institutions ourselves. 

And I think that that's one thing that the two-year sector and career in tech ed really bring out, technical colleges, behave more like business private organizations because we have to. We're, we're operating on the financial margins. we usually have a very broad portfolio, and certainly in our colleges have a very broad portfolio of services that they're not only expected to provide, but in some cases required to provide, for example, We provide most of the law enforcement academies in Wisconsin.

We provide most of the fire service training, and, and most of that has to be done for free. we are the responsible entity for adult basic education here in Wisconsin. In many places that falls to the K-12 system, but here in Wisconsin, that's a responsibility of technical colleges and we, we cannot charge tuition for those services.

So we have to do the things that. Just like any private business would do to make sure that we're being as efficient as possible and as effective as possible, with our budget decisions and with our, our programming decisions.

Becky: So you are very nimble and I love that you, you shared about the history of, of the system early on in my career in, in the late nineties, I worked for the United Way in Waukesha County. So it was an interesting experience for me as a, a young professional being able to go into all of these businesses and I know, The technical college there in, in Waukesha County was a really big supporter.

And I, I think we always talk about an entrepreneurship education, like bird in hand assets. And I think that's something, with your state not only having, a lot of natural, beautiful resources, but kind of embracing that it is a more rural area. There's, there's a history of, of a lot of, you know, the kinds of companies that if you can co-create training programs together, everybody, you know, benefits from it.

And I know, you know, obviously all of us, you know, experienced the pandemic together as a global, community. I saw a lot of innovations, that happened. not, not only in your system, but in your peers and your colleagues in other areas. What, what do you think in terms of always innovating, do you think on the other side of the pandemic, it's made us kind of stronger or more interconnected or how do you reflect on, on our learnings, through those years?

Morna: I think that it has put a lot, it has empowered students for one. It has really accelerated change in higher ed that was going, was coming and was gonna happen eventually, but it sped that process up and it really changed expectations. of all of our, we refer to our students and our employer partners as our customers. cause they. They influence peripherally everything we do in, in the college. We are a very, stakeholder driven organization, both at the system level and at, at the college level. With, with, Local leadership and our governing boards, with, you know, input on, on from employers about job openings and financing.

Our colleges are, have the power to, levy local property tax, which is terrific. But with that comes a responsibility and an accountability to local taxpayers. They feel quite strong ownership over their individual, institutions. You know, I think this idea of expectation not only about what they need from us, but how we can respond, has really changed since the pandemic. 

We used to be able to say things like, well, we can't do that because the technology's not quite there, or we don't have the resources to do it. And then all of a sudden during the pandemic, we found a way. So now, even if it's still true, if it, if the next iteration of, of, Virtual reality education, for example, you know, it, it is gonna be even more expensive, and it is gonna be, it's a, it's a level of, we don't necessarily have all the, the bugs worked out in the system, but since expectations now have been elevated, it's a lot harder for us to say, we just can't do that. you have to wait. 

Students and employers say, well, you figured out the last problem. So figure this one out. If you don't, we're gonna go, go find a partner who can. 

Becky: I, I heard someone once say, it's like you let the genie outta the bottle. You can't, can't get the genie back in the bottle again. And then also, right? It shows you what you really can do. All of us can do and we're really pushed, to the limit. Cuz to your point about. Viewing, students as customers.

You know, I, I've long thought that, but the work that I've done, you know, over the years has been sort of in the entrepreneurship space. But even thinking about like customer discovery and customer experience, it's even a way of thinking about internships and, and things like that, of giving people experience where they're actually doing things.

You know, do they wanna sit at a desk? Do they wanna work with their hands? Do they want to work with people or work with equipment? And so I think it's, it's interesting because it's a different mindset and I, I love the fact that you're, you're constantly innovating. as I mentioned to you earlier, I had a chance to hear you speak at a National Workforce Development Institute conference, when we were out in California earlier in the year.

And I was struck by a lot of the, the charts and, and data and things that you track and, you know, maybe as we close out our conversation, I'd just be curious to see, or to hear from you, Dr. Foy, like what are the things that you pay attention to? What are sort of the, the data points or things that indicate to you, you know, are you sort of headed in, in the right direction or, is it something do we need to course correct, or, or something like that.

Morna: Yeah, we actually monitor quite a bit of things. and, and that's large part, not just driven by changing student expectations, but I think the other thing that's changed is, Flexibility. We have to be more responsive. So, any higher education institution no longer can just say, this is what our product is, this is how we offer it, these are the times of day we offer it.

And you, you buy that or you don't. We have to empower our, our customers, to tell us how do they learn best? How do they Get the information and, and incorporate it into their lives, which are very complex, in a way that's most efficient and effective. because we, you know, we're measuring ourselves on graduates and placements and, and none of that can happen if the, if the students can't get the information.

So we have a built, we've always collected just tons of data in the, in the system. It's very data rich. Haven't always done a great job making use of that data. And that's really changing now. So we built, you know, come up with, we have common definitions of, of terms, we collect the data in a uniform way so that it, me, you know, we know what it means and not just, Think we know what it means.

We put that in a form, a visualized form that's easy for people to, to access and absorb and be able to track things. We empower, individual faculty members as well as staff at the college level and, and within my office, to access that kind of information so they can take a look at things like, I am teaching a class right now with 20 people in it.

I can monitor in real time how those 20 individuals are doing and what is different about them, that might be affecting how it is that they're doing. You know, the gender, race, age, whether they enrolled in this class as a, as an online student or an in-person student, and make adjustments then, not just in my course, but for an individual student. It's been an incredibly powerful, tool for faculty members.

Our program design, our curriculum design folks use that data, data dashboard also to look at the order in which they put, learning competencies and modules. We do a lot of stacking of both credentials, but also within a credential, so that our faculty can, can borrow from each other.

And in the order in which we do that, how does that affect student learning and success rates? We have dashboards about student success itself. So we look at different kinds of students and how they learn best. And we are, we have elements in there that allow us to check for things like equity gaps.

All of our female students, of, you know, Hispanic origin, are they gravitating towards certain program areas that are maybe not the, the best paying or, and why is that? Is it just personal choice? Is it because when we offer them, it's be, is it whether it's because it's consistent with other things that they might need if they're parents as well as being, Hispanic women.

So we, we try to look at all these factors, both of student characteristics to see if that is affecting the learning process and the success process. Are we providing support services at the right times, in the right format for students to take advantage of them? We look at the same information for our high school or dual credit programs. We have, Special data dashboards on, for our justice involved. So students who are incarcerated, whether they're in a jail or a state prison system, how does that affect the learning process? How do we have to do things different? 

It's not just what we're teaching, it's mostly like how we're delivering it. It's really taking, again, it's being student focused. You know, we used to talk all the time about how we had to prepare high school students to be career and college ready. Now we talk about we as institutions need to be student ready. We need to deliver to them what they need. and it's gonna be very different depending on that individual. the end goal is success.

Becky: That's right. That's right. But I love what you're saying about really looking inwardly, because I, I think about that a lot of the, you know, reflections that you try to do is, you know, it's, you can try to change somebody else or somebody else's system, or you can look inside and see what can we do better that will ultimately impact the, the outcome. 

So I've, I've learned a lot from you today. I appreciate so much you sharing your story, your inspiration. you know, for me personally, cause I, I think, you know, that kind of a job, I've always admired people that get close to policy, but can still, you know, always sort of step back from it.

And Certainly with your dashboards. I know you generously shared those on the session that I sat in on, and I hope that people will take the time and, and look up the system and learn from what you're doing in your state and, and get some ideas for, what they might bring to their communities because there's a lot of change going on. I spoke with a leader out in Connecticut where they're, they're combining all of their colleges into one system. So you talk about radical innovation and, and some of the things that are, are happening even in the state of North Carolina where we are. 

So, I just wish you a, a wonderful day. Thank you for sharing, being so generous, sharing your story, but also your resources and, I'm sure people in our audience will get inspired to, to, you know, to try to follow some of your examples.

Morna: Well, I hope so. I think that's the best part about the two-year college space actually is the collaboration, that happens across states, across colleges, with a desire of everybody, you know, raising all boats. We're not in competition with each other. We're, we're just trying to provide better service.

Becky: Indeed. Thank you so much.

Morna: All right. Thank you.