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Thompson Continues Push For Systemwide Online Education Program

UW Interim President Says In Order To Compete With Out-Of-State Universities, Unified Approach Better Than Leaving It To Campuses

Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson
In a file photo, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson talks to the media after voting in a primary election Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012, in Madison, Wis. Andy Manis/AP Photo

University of Wisconsin System interim President Tommy Thompson is continuing his push for a system-wide approach to online education. Thompson says a unified front on behalf of all UW System campuses is the best way to compete with out-of-state colleges spending heavily in Wisconsin to attract working adults to take courses.

During a UW Board of Regents meeting on Thursday, Thompson sounded the alarm about increasing competition for working adults with some college credit but no degree.

“The barbarians are at the door,” said Thompson. “Arizona State, Western Governors, University of Southern New Hampshire is a big one, coming in and advertising. And they’re taking approximately, I would say, 35 to 40 percent of our students.”

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According to a UW System review of 25 online programs with the most Wisconsinites enrolled during the 2018-2019 school year, UW System campuses had 37 percent of the total. Wisconsin technical colleges enrolled 32 percent while out-of-state universities enrolled 37 percent.

Anny Morrobel-Sosa, UW System vice president for academic and student affairs, said national census data show there are around 815,000 residents with some college credit but no degree. Of that, she said around 300,000 have indicated they are pursuing online courses.

“Those 300,000 are the ones who are indeed interested in furthering their education through either certificates, micro-credentials or noncredit, work-related training, while others are indeed interested in degree completion,” said Morrobel-Sosa.

She told regents those students want “unbundled” education, meaning they can get credentials needed for job advancement without committing to longer degree programs. She said during the last four years, the competitive environment for online education has become more crowded, “presenting a greater threat to our institutions and system.”

“We must recognize the need to engage more of these working adults and to be more responsive to their career aspirations and that of the employer and business community,” said Morrobel-Sosa.

The state’s 13 universities and branch campuses have had online degree programs for years, but Thompson told regents he believes whatever funds he is able to get from state lawmakers for expanding online courses would be better spent in centralized online programs like the UW Extended Campus. That way, the UW will have a better chance competing against universities spending hundreds of millions of dollars on marketing campaigns in states like Wisconsin.

“And I’m not even sure that we’re going to be able to do it,” said Thompson. “But at least, if we don’t start, we don’t have a chance at all.”

In his first budget request as head of the UW System, Thompson has asked for $15 million to expand online education.