September 17, 2008

Working Students

According to a recent report, college graduates now earn 75% more than men and women with only a high school diploma – up from 40% just 25 years ago.  More and more good, family-supporting jobs require the sort of skills and credentials that only come through postsecondary schooling.  Because of that, it’s imperative that Wisconsin make higher education accessible to all of its residents.

In a many ways, Wisconsin is ahead of the curve in postsecondary affordability and accessibility.  Our technical colleges, two-year colleges, and universities are much more affordable than their counterparts in other states.  Even so, costs continue to rise.  Just last year, tuition at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee increased by 5.5% - and that was the smallest increase in years!

Financial aids have largely kept up with rising school costs, but they don’t cover everyone.  In fact, most financial aid programs cover only ‘traditional’ students – young people, without dependents, enrolled full-time.  That’s a good start, but it doesn’t help the thousands of working adults who need to acquire new skills and credentials just to keep pace with the changing employment landscape.

Wisconsin’s major source of need-based financial aid is the Wisconsin Higher Education Grant (WHEG).  To be eligible for a WHEG, students must be enrolled at least half time at an accredited school in an approved program of study.  WHEGs can last for up to ten semesters and are based on the standard federal financial aid (FAFSA) criteria.

WHEGs are a critical resource, but for many folks the program comes up short. Since most adult students work while in school, their wages oftentimes disqualify them for need-based aid.  Of course, since these men and women typically have to provide for a family, the reality is that, without financial aid, they don’t have the disposable income to pay for postsecondary schooling.

Also, many credentialing and training programs don’t qualify as approved programs of study under the WHEG definition.  So when workers need to complete those programs in order to get or keep a job, they have to pay for them out of their own pockets.  In many cases, that’s just not a realistic possibility.

Perhaps the biggest roadblock facing workers looking to enhance their education is the requirement that they attend at school at least half-time.  Most residents are overwhelmed with the time constraints of jobs, families, and everything in between.  Most lifestyles can usually eek out a class per semester, but, under state law, WHEGs are only available to students who can set aside the considerable time to attend half time.

So how do we remedy the shortcomings? Looking at other states’, we learned that Arkansas, Georgia, Minnesota, and Washington have all implemented major new financial aid tools aimed specifically at addressing their unconventional educational needs of their workers.  And, here at home, Governor Doyle’s Grow Wisconsin plan included a new set of need-based grants for students who don’t qualify for traditional financial aid.

There’s a clear need for solutions if Wisconsin is going to thrive in the new economy.  Workers have to be able to grow and adapt to evolving roles in the workplace.  If they aren’t given the tools to do so, present employers could encounter rising shortages of skilled workers, potential businesses may decide to forgo Wisconsin has a location for their companies and our families will increasingly face economic insecurity, as they become further removed from potential employment.  The question of access must be addressed by our state sooner rather than later.  Because being “late” on this issue, comes with penalties that our state simply can’t afford.