By John McCracken
GREEN BAY – Green Bay is approximately 6 percent below the national average for undergraduate degrees produced, according to the most recent Census data.
Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, leaders in the field are hopeful to bridge that higher education gap.
An indicator of this effort is an increase in enrollment at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay for this fall semester.
Chancellor Michael Alexander said numbers for students coming into the university are up dramatically.
Although official numbers haven’t been released yet, the university said enrollment has increased by about 300 students from last year’s reported 8,727.
Green Bay is the third largest metro area in the state, but UW-Green Bay is far from being the third largest university in Wisconsin.
Alexander, appointed chancellor in April, said being the third largest is not important to him, but rather the ability to grow to meet the needs of the region.
“Otherwise, it means our region can’t grow together,” Alexander said.
He said 90 percent of UW-Green Bay graduates stay in Wisconsin post-graduation, with 70 percent staying in Brown County.
Some of the top degrees at UW-Green Bay include business administration, psychology and nursing.
With 40 percent of students at UW-Green Bay being first-generation students, Alexander said their decision to pursue education is key to the growth of the region.
“Education is not a straight line anymore,” he said. “Most people are going to get their education over many years.”
Upward Bound is an enrichment program facilitated by UW-Green Bay to help low-income and potential first-generation college applicants prepare for a higher education path.
Alexander said the program is expanding as the school is hiring more student support staff to help its large population of first-generation students.
Namia Musse is a first-generation sophomore pursuing a nursing degree at UW-Green Bay.
Originally from Somalia, she plans to eventually receive a master’s degree for leadership nursing.
“My parents didn’t get the opportunity to go to college,” she said.
After graduating from Preble High School, Musse said she wanted to keep going and do whatever she has to do to succeed.
Musse said she believes the majority of people she knows on campus are first-generation students.
“You might feel bad that you’re a first-generation student and you don’t have someone at home to help with higher education,” she said. “But you’ve got to keep going and try your best.”
As a current nursing student, Musse said she is energized to continue her passion while studying and living through a pandemic.
“I’m pursuing this major to help people, not to back out when something serious comes up,” she said.” It’s my passion.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted every aspect of higher education, and highlighted the need for greater access to options for all varieties of students.
“When we say access,” Alexander said, “it can mean everything from how the class is delivered, to where it’s delivered to, to the time with which it’s delivered, to what part of it is in person, what part of it is online. It’s a very complex web.”
Providing options and eliminating challenges for students is one of the goals that the Greater Green Bay Chamber has outlined as well.
“It’s easy to say you graduate from high school, you go to college, you get your degree,” said Chamber Vice President of Talent and Education Eric Vanden Heuvel. “But there are things that stand in the way for people. As a community, we can try to eliminate those barriers.”
He said barriers can be something as simple as reliable transportation to get to class and stay on a schedule.
“Funding, rising costs, escalating cost of higher education can certainly be a barrier, other life circumstances where you have a child yourself, or if you’re caring for another family member,” Vanden Heuvel said. “Those are all things that can stand in the way of being able to pursue higher education.”
When asked what the GGBC has done to help eliminate those barriers, he cited its diversity and inclusion taskforce, where numerous local businesses signed a CEO action pledge for diversity and inclusion created at the national level.
The GGBC has also taken steps to create a pathway for students pursuing higher education with their Turbocharge college readiness program, created in partnership with UW-Green Bay, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College and Green Bay Area Public Schools.
The growing enrollment and UW-Green Bay’s place in Brown County hinges completely on students evolving and charting a course.
Alexander said the cost and challenges along the way are part of the risk that they will eventually be rewarded by.
“We want them to bet on themselves,” he said.