Madison College prepares for possible rise in enrollment during pandemic

MADISON, Wis. – With the uncertainties linked to the pandemic extending to the new school year, colleges are planning ahead to the fall semester.

The California State University System announced Tuesday that its 23 campuses will teach nearly exclusively online in the fall.

“I just feel for all the high school seniors, not only what they’re missing out on, but trying to plan for the next step in the future,” said Madison College Provost Dr. Turina Bakken. “It’s just so uncertain.”

The future is uncertain for colleges, too.

“We’re trying to be really agile, and think from a scenario perspective. We’re preparing for severe declines and an enrollment jump,” Bakken said, adding that there are factors brewing that could make a perfect storm for that jump in enrollment.

“A lot depends on what university and high school students do with college-going decisions,” she said. “Those two (factors) will have an immediate impact on what we’ll see in the fall.”

Bakken said the technical and community college’s all-time high enrollment came in the 2010-11 school year following the recession.

During a time of unknowns like this, she said a lower tuition at community colleges compared to four-year-schools is attractive

“Knowing that some students are going to change their plans, (we’re considering) how can we create a really meaningful educational opportunity, whether it’s a semester or a year or, better yet, they stay with us for two years and then move on with an Associate Degree in hand,” Bakken said.

The fact that what most think of as the “college experience” will likely look different this coming school year is another factor in the decision-making process, according to Bakken.

“It’s always a stressful time for parents and students, but I think now with these layers of uncertainty, not only the health and safety perspective, but just, what’s the learning experience going to be like?” she said. “Do I want to send my child to Montana, far away from home and then have them do an all online experience from a dorm room? People are rethinking what the next year might bring them.”

That year will likely bring more remote learning, no matter where a student goes.

“We’re going to go as much online and virtual as we meaningfully can,” Bakken said, adding that Madison College has been doing such instruction for 20 years.

“When we say online or remote instruction, we’re talking about simulation, virtual reality,” she said. “It’s much more sophisticated than some might think.”

Madison College is paying attention to and focusing on what industries will likely bounce back first during the pandemic, like emergency medicine, law enforcement and digital careers. Certain disciplines will still require hands-on coursework, which will be pushed back later into the year.

Bakken says if there’s a silver lining, it’s that no matter what, there are still lessons to be learned.

“This is a monumental time in our existence,” she said. “What can they learn, what can they learn about life choices, certainty, uncertainty. There’s a lot to be learned despite disruption and difficulty.”

A University of Wisconsin-Madison spokesperson said the school is still a ways out from a decision on what exactly the fall semester will look like and plan to make an announcement in July.