Viewpoints: Milwaukee is a college town, through HERA, we’re collaborating to keep our higher ed system strong

As members of Southeastern Wisconsin’s higher education community, we read the recent news about Cardinal Stritch University’s impending closure with great sorrow. Our hearts go out to the students, faculty, staff and alumni who are all deeply affected by what I’m sure was an incredibly difficult decision.

As chair of the Higher Education Regional Alliance (HERA), a collaborative of 18 southeastern Wisconsin institutions and partners, I’m heartened to report that our region’s colleges and universities immediately went to work on potential transfer opportunities for current Stritch students and to identify potential professional opportunities for current Stritch faculty and staff.

To those students: We want you to stay here in southeastern Wisconsin to complete your education with minimal disruption, then put down roots and grow your career in our region.

At the same time, I want to take this opportunity to reinforce that our region’s higher education landscape remains strong, as does the long-term value proposition for students who complete their college degrees. And we are constantly working to improve.

Milwaukee is a college town, and southeastern Wisconsin has a higher education system that many other regions across the country and around the world would love to have.

Right now, HERA institutions are educating approximately 125,000 students, serving just about any career interest imaginable. Each year, approximately 24,000 students earn degrees and certifications from HERA institutions and enter the talent pipeline. While rates vary, HERA institutions report that up to 90% of their graduating students stay in Wisconsin to work.

Still, hurdles and headwinds remain – hurdles that prevent students from entering and completing college, and headwinds that our institutions face in a shifting education landscape. We are committed to addressing them by collaborating through HERA, organizing our work around three goals:

· Improving college completion and bridging equity gaps for students.

· Aligning, evolving and innovating our programs.

· Expanding talent bridges for employers.

There is still much room for improvement in our college graduation rates, and the racial disparities that exist within them. But there also is some progress, as we see more students coming to college with a plan: In 2022, 89% of students declared a major or program within their first year – an increase of 16%. And this progress was steady for students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

And since our launch in 2019, we have worked to align HERA institutions’ programs with the needs of industry. Recently, we partnered with the MKE Tech Hub to convene a meeting of university and industry leaders. One important takeaway was the need to address the rise of artificial intelligence and how HERA institutions can help companies and their employees meet new challenges and opportunities associated with AI. Stay tuned for additional developments in this area.

Meanwhile, changing U.S. demographics mean increased competition for a shrinking pool of potential students. While challenging, this also is an opportunity for us to work even more closely with industry to train and upskill people who are already in the workforce. As part of our efforts to address this need, HERA recently launched a microcredential portal – a one-stop-shop for all the short, focused education programs offered across our region.

And finally, we know that students and families across the country are taking a closer look than ever at the value of a college education. It’s important to remember that college is a time for educational and life experiences that better prepare you for success in the working world and beyond. And it translates to real dollars. Someone with a bachelor’s degree earns nearly twice the median wage compared to someone with a high school degree, according to recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

It’s our job to constantly enhance that value proposition. At each of our institutions and together through HERA, we are committed to doing that work every day on behalf of our students and the businesses throughout our region that depend on them to fuel their future workforce.

Dr. John Swallow is the president of Carthage College and chair of the Higher Education Regional Alliance.