Jasmin Treske had planned to go to college after graduating from South Milwaukee High School. She picked out classes at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and attended orientation, but the looming financial commitment spooked her. So she decided to take a year off. And in that year, Treske got pregnant.
“Going to school just became that much harder. Now somebody else was in the equation,” she said.
One day, without a plan, she stopped by the Oak Creek Campus of Milwaukee Area Technical College and started scouring the rack of informational brochures. That’s where a staff member spotted her and asked if she needed help. She did. Her parents hadn’t been to college; she had to navigate a new world of higher education without a template.
Soon Treske was meeting with an admissions counselor and student success coordinator. “They helped me answer questions I didn’t know to ask,” she said.
Not long after, Treske began taking classes in finance. A part-time job as a bank teller became full-time, and she started volunteering, teaching financial classes to young people. Treske met a mentor, and her professional network quickly expanded.
Today, Treske is the program and events manager for the MKE Tech Hub Coalition, a nonprofit that aims to grow and diversify Milwaukee’s tech community. She’s an active supporter of MATC. Treske, who is Latina, helps connect other young people of color to tech careers.
‘Determined to be part of the solution’
Across the country, community colleges are looked at as a ladder to opportunities for people like Treske, educating students, launching careers and fueling local economies.
In Milwaukee, that mission is increasingly vital, particularly for its residents of color. A 2020 UW-Milwaukee report ranks it at or near the bottom of major cities when it comes to many key measures of Black community well-being, including rates of homeownership and employment. The fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic is only expected to deepen inequities.
MATC has in recent years launched a dizzying array of programs and initiatives to open the door to adult learners, including free tuition to qualifying students, debt forgiveness and dual-credit programs for high school students which it says have cut costs and accelerated a college education for more than 4,000 students. More than three-quarters of participants in the free tuition and debt forgiveness programs are students of color, MATC said.
Despite successes, former students and those who have worked with them say barriers persist for adult learners transitioning to college. Fewer MATC students complete their programs than at peer institutions across the United States, according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. About 16% of MATC students finish their programs within 150% of normal completion time, compared to a median of 31% among peer institutions.
Nevertheless, MATC remains a lifeline for students like Treske, boosting economic opportunity for Milwaukee and its residents.
“I really am a true believer that education really lifts people out of poverty, improves their lives and improves the community that we all share. And we’re determined to be part of that solution,” MATC president Vicki Martin said.
As the largest and most diverse campus within the Wisconsin Technical College System, MATC is well positioned for the effort. At four different campuses and two smaller education centers, the tech college enrolled more than 24,600 students last year — 90% of them part-time — for a full-time equivalent of roughly 8,000 students, according to the most recent data available. More than a quarter of its students are Black and 20% Latino. Statewide, Black students make up 6.5% and Latinos make up 9% of technical school enrollment.
Milwaukee: ‘Archetype’ of inequality
By some measures, the outlook for Black Milwaukeeans has only worsened in recent decades. A 2020 report by UW-Milwaukee’s Center for Economic Development described the city as “the archetype of modern-day metropolitan racial apartheid and inequality,” with the median Black household income the lowest among the nation’s 50 largest metro areas.
Martin said such statistics only underscore the importance of education as a tool for unlocking economic opportunity. MATC offers 200 programs that can help prepare students for careers in one or two years and provides a more affordable avenue for students who transfer to other schools to pursue four-year degrees.
“The kinds of jobs and careers that we offer will lead to family sustaining wages,” Martin said. “And I really believe that education is that difference maker.”
But as it has for colleges across the country, the past year and a half have tested MATC’s capacity to sustain revenues and meet students’ needs amid a pandemic — the fallout of which has yet to come into full view.
Enrollment across the technical college system dropped by 19% between 2018 and 2020. For MATC, its full-time equivalent count of students dipped from 10,023 to 8,021 over the same period. A survey of students who left school between the spring and fall of 2021 revealed most cited changes in life circumstances, funding or concerns over physical and mental health.
Martin said MATC maintained a balanced budget by reducing expenditures, cutting the number of course sections offered — but not classes or programs. The lessons learned during the pandemic, she said, will only make the institution better.
Success uneven for MATC students
There’s no shortage of success stories for MATC graduates. Wisconsin Watch reached out to current and former MATC students via Facebook and text messages through its News414 engagement collaboration. Most shared positive stories.
After dropping out of high school, Marisol Mendoza earned an associate’s paralegal degree from MATC. Based on her grades there, she was awarded scholarships to Marquette University, where she studied criminology and legal studies. Today, Mendoza’s work as a paralegal focuses on civil rights and labor law.
Tanya Fenninger said MATC helped her become a certified nursing assistant, a credential that got her a job right out of school. “I think MATC does a great job at getting you prepared for a professional career,” she said.
Others shared experiences they said left them disappointed.
Melissa Buscher had been a hairdresser for 30 years when she decided at the age of 47 to join MATC’s echocardiography program.
But she soon found out she’d need additional classes before she could apply for the program. She struggled with some of those video-based classes — and to get help when she had questions.
Buscher described the instructors as overwhelmed. “They had too many hats to wear,” she said.
One year and $9,000 later, she left the school, transferring to Bryant & Stratton College. She said the credits she earned at MATC won’t count toward the credential she’s currently pursuing.
Martin said both students and staff faced a learning curve when it came to the online instruction, with staff constantly responding to challenges as they arose. Over time, she said, instructors and students generally became more comfortable with virtual learning, and some students found they actually preferred the online approach due to its flexibility.
Programs aim to broaden access
In 2015, MATC launched the Promise Program for new high school graduates which offers up to 75 credits of free tuition for those who qualify. Three years later, it kicked off the Promise Program for adults 24 and older who have earned some college credits but don’t have degrees. And in October, MATC expanded the program to include students who had earned high school equivalency degrees.
More than 900 high school graduates and 1,100 adults have participated in the programs since their start, according to MATC — 78% of them students of color, which includes Black, Latino, Asian and biracial students.
Last year, MATC launched its ReStart program for students who earned credits at MATC and still owe money. Students who return to MATC can earn up to $1,500 in scholarships over three semesters. More than 300 students have benefited from ReStart, 86% of them students of color, MATC said.
The college has tried a variety of other approaches to help Milwaukee students get college credit, including partnering with nonprofits like Teens Grow Greens, led by program director and Milwaukee native Sylvia Wilson.
The program offers paid internships and a certified pre-apprenticeship program with the state Department of Workforce Development. Students create a professional portfolio of their work experiences, which can earn them college credit from MATC.
The goal is to move students toward registered apprenticeships, higher education and living wage jobs. The program has a 100% high school graduation rate, Wilson said.
Dual enrollment programs touted
Overall, about 2,000 students are participating in dual enrollment programs that allow them to earn MATC credit while still in high school.
One of them is M-cubed, or M3 College Connections program, a partnership between MATC, the public school system and UW-Milwaukee. Students who qualify can earn college credits from both MATC and UWM at no cost.
The program saves students about $5,000 they would have spent on tuition, or collectively an estimated $750,000, Martin said. She described such dual enrollment programs as “the wave of the future.”
John Hill, director of college and career readiness for MPS and an M-cubed program leader, said the program has grown from 32 students in 2018, its first year, to 149 students this year. Along the way, the program has offered additional areas of focus for students pursuing careers in nursing or education.
But the program’s metrics are based on MPS’ overall student population — not just those enrolled in M3. Those statistics show fewer than half who attend MATC or UW-Milwaukee stay for a second year. And those numbers were declining even before the pandemic shut down in-person classes.
M-cubed program leaders are encouraged by the overall increase in graduation rate for all Milwaukee Public School students, which rose to 69.1% in 2019 from 66.7% the year before.
But, noted Danny Goldberg, a former MPS school board member: “There’s no metrics to show whether there was a causal relationship between M-cubed and the graduation rates.”
Those who successfully complete the program can earn 21 college credits. Hill points to one student who will earn her licensed practical nurse credential even before she graduates high school.
“They’re going to have the confidence and the knowledge that ‘Yes, I belong in the college game.’ ”
This piece is part of a collaboration that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Borderless Magazine, BridgeDetroit, Sahan Journal and Wisconsin Watch. The project was made possible with support from INN’s Amplify News Project, whose funders include the Joyce Foundation in the Great Lakes region, and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation in Chicago. The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.