Lakeland University’s co-op program addresses student debt crisis, workforce shortages

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When Randall Moyer chose to enroll at Lakeland University in 2017, he had resigned himself to taking on a hefty amount of student debt.

But when Moyer met with his counselor at the private, liberal arts college in rural Sheboygan County, it was fortuitous timing for the self-described “penny-pinching” freshman.

The university had just launched a new cooperative education program that placed students in jobs with area companies to gain professional work experience, while also earning college credit and wages to defray their tuition cost. If he followed the university’s financial advising, he was told he could graduate with little to no debt.

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“I was kind of shocked at first,” Moyer said. “I was like, this seems like an opportunity that’s almost too good to be true. They essentially pay us to get credit and work. It’s real-world experience, and we’re going to school and we’re getting credits for it.”

Now as a junior marketing major, Moyer is positioned to graduate with less than $10,000 in debt, having worked in the housekeeping department of the American Club in Kohler while also taking Lakeland classes.

As enrollment in Lakeland’s co-op grows, leaders say the program has fundamentally changed the 160-year-old university’s delivery of higher education, and positions it to be competitive among the many other small, liberal arts schools in the Midwest. About 90% of incoming freshmen for the 2020-‘21 year have indicated their intention to enroll in the program.

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Meanwhile, more than 85 area employers, including large businesses, such as Johnsonville Sausage LLC, Bemis Manufacturing Co. and Acuity, along with nonprofit organizations and school districts, have partnered with the university.

“We’ve become a co-op college,” said president David Black. “It’s who we are now.”

The program is designed to address three major challenges: the national college affordability crisis, a widespread decline in higher education enrollment, and a worker shortage in Sheboygan County.

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“We were a small residential campus at a time when demography is declining, but we looked around us and saw all these world-class, family-owned businesses that couldn’t find enough talent; they just didn’t have people,” Black said. “We were all sitting around, contemplating our existence and our future, and thought let’s put humpty dumpty together.”

The program allows students to work at multiple job sites during their college tenure, with the goal of building their workforce skills in different settings. Students work at different paces to meet the co-op requirements. Some work 40 hours per week for a semester, earning 15 college credits through experiential learning, while others work 10 hours per week to accumulate those credits over a longer period of time.

Hospitality majors, for example, complete three, six-month placements – one in food and beverage, one in planning and one in housekeeping/hotel management.

The partnership has been particularly beneficial for area hospitality businesses, including the American Club and Blue Harbor Resort in Sheboygan, which have struggled to find enough workers, especially in the summer months.

The logistics of the program are a challenge, however, as the university has to continually adapt its class schedule to allow students to fulfill their work obligations, Black said.

While students largely work in entry-level jobs, the goal is that students will be able to advance in their careers more quickly with that experience under their belts.

“We hope we can show in a few years that students graduate and start at a little higher rate of pay because they already have a year-and-a-half of work in,” said Scott Niederjohn, dean of the School of Business and Entrepreneurship.

Johnsonville, which is located about five miles from Lakeland’s campus, was one of the first companies to partner with the university on the co-op.

All co-op students begin on the production floor, said Kristen Young, Johnsonville’s workforce development coordinator.

“When they’re freshman and sophomores they’re working in production,” Young said. “That’s a time for us to get to know the student and for them to get to know us. And, doing that for one to two years, they’re learning basic work ethic principles … And we always have openings in production so it’s important for us to have that pipeline.”

From there, promising students have opportunities to advance, she said.

“There are a few students who are go-getters and they’re doing a fabulous job. Those students we’re targeting to make sure we provide opportunities off the line in the third year, whether that’s job shadowing for a day or week, or working with the corporate office on (other opportunities),” she said.

Lakeland also offers a pre-co-op course that covers topics like resume writing and interviewing skills, along with courses on financial management to ensure the students actually achieve what the university has promised – graduating with little to no debt.

For Moyer, working while he goes to college has allowed him to start contributing to his 401(k), and covering tuition costs with his wages has freed him to think about other future purchases.

“It won’t be a burden,” Moyer said of college debt. “That will enable me to start my ‘life’ sooner, buy a house sooner, buy a nicer car sooner.”

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