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Grant funds for tech college students run dry

Funding for students of Wisconsin's technical colleges has been a concern for the past few years, according to Joe Huftel, campus administrator at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College (WITC) - New Richmond.

It became even more of a concern when the state Higher Educational Aids Board stopped awarding Wisconsin Higher Education Grants for technical college students on Aug. 21.

Huftel said the depletion of the state grant monies will impact students of technical colleges more than students at universities or private colleges even though tuition is less at technical colleges.

"The average age of our students is between 28 and 30 years old," Huftel said. "Many of them are financially in a position of needing to work to maintain enough income to go to school and support a family."

Huftel added that WITC students are generally a "financially needy group" that need the basic education offered by technical college to help them move into the working middle class.

Without state funding, many potential or returning students will have to postpone or cancel their plans to attend college due to financial hardship.

Last year, funding for the state grants to technical college students was exhausted in November and 2,700 students were not able to obtain funding. Approximately 24,000 technical college students received the grants last year.

A full-time class schedule at one of Wisconsin's technical colleges costs about $2,800 per year in tuition, but with the added costs of books, supplies, transportation, child care and living expenses, total costs were an estimated $11,000 on average in 2006-07.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel a technical college student receives, on average, $3,500 in need-based financial aid, including federal and state grants and loans. After their own contribution, students were then left with an average of $4,602 in unmet need.

The dried-up funding is being blamed on a flagging economy, according to the Sentinel article. Enrollment at technical colleges is up, and more people are applying for financial aid, the article states.

Huftel echoed that opinion, saying two factors were at play in the depletion of the state funds; the need was greater this year than ever before and more students are coming to school.

Huftel cites the laid-off auto workers in Blackhawk as an example of increased enrollment. He also said the 17 percent increase the New Richmond campus of WITC experienced last year was partially due to displaced workers from Andersen Windows and AmTec, Inc. in Amery.

"Whenever the economy is bad people access secondary training," Huftel said. "When the people can't afford training and the businesses are screaming for skilled workers, it is time for everyone to roll up their sleeves to try to solve the problem of getting the workforce in place."

Mark Tyler of OEM Fabricators, Inc. in Woodville is a member of the State Technical College Board. Huftel said Tyler has been a great proponent of hiring WITC graduates, but for the past five years he has turned work away because he doesn't have the skilled people to do the jobs. The machinists and welders he hires must be trained and he is in need of more WITC graduates than they have been able to supply.

"One of the first issues for businesses is that it is difficult to get young people into technical college careers because there is still the thought that a four-year degree is needed," Tyler said. "Nothing against four-year degrees, but there is a substantial demand for one and two-year degrees and the pay is often better for students with a technical college degree."

Tyler said a lot of times students will complete four-year colleges. Then, due to their inability to find jobs, will return to school at technical colleges to be retrained so they can make a living wage.

"In tough economic times, like now, enrollment goes up at technical colleges, but their budget doesn't go up proportionally," Tyler commented. "It's hard for technical colleges to deal with this. Because enrollment is up, the pressure is on technical colleges to retrain returning students and educate young people coming out of high school."

Health care is another area likely to be deeply impacted by the state's financial aid deficit, said Huftel.

"We are booked three to four years out for our associate of nursing degree," Huftel said. "There is a great need for these graduates. We need a steady stream of workers."

Dan Clancy, Wisconsin Technical College System president, and Department of Workforce Development Secretary Roberta Gassman will be asking for an additional $14.3 million to help support the technical college system's 2009-2011 budget, according to Huftel.

But if they are unsuccessful in their bid for additional funding, the same scenario of running out of state funds will likely play out again next year, added Huftel.

Historically, technical college students are more inclined to have mortgages, car loans, families and other financial obligations that make going to school one more item to squeeze into their already tight budgets.

Losing state aid this early in the year will certainly impact students at WITC and across the board at technical colleges.

"When the money is not in place for students, it keeps them from taking the next step to career advancement," Huftel said.

WITC monitors their graduates five years after completing their degrees. Huftel said he is very proud of the fact that right out of school, WITC graduates often begin earning between $20,000 - $25,000 per year and within five years their salaries have climbed to the $40,000 - $45,000 range.

"Many programs are showing an 85 percent raise in graduates' salaries within five years," Huftel said. "Our graduates are earning at rates faster than the consumer index is climbing. That's something we are very proud of."