Consider: For every 1% decline in unemployment, community and technical college enrollment drops 2% to 2.5%.

It’s a statistic that applies to schools across the country, and it has been tested repeatedly and proven true.

But for the past several years, enrollment at Blackhawk Technical College has crept up.

This fall, college officials expect a 1% enrollment increase. It’s not a big jump, but it matters, said Jon Tysse, BTC’s director of institutional research and effectiveness.

Tysse doesn’t think this story should be about numbers, but rather about the programs that have driven that change. Still, it’s difficult to deny that the numbers mean something.

Since BTC President Tracy Pierner arrived in 2016, he has focused on finding ways to increase enrollment without waiting for the unemployment numbers to change.

At the same time, he has tried to address local businesses’ concerns that they had to wait too long to get what they needed as far as training and potential new hires.

Pierner used the same tactics to respond to enrollment issues and business concerns: making education more accessible and adding new programs.

A commercial driver’s license certificate and line cook program were created. Students were able to take classes online, in person or a combination of both. Degrees were “stacked” with credentials so students would have certificates that could get them jobs before they had their associate degrees.

The college also worked to make credits more transferable to four-year colleges.

Now another round of new courses is slated to begin. They include:

Surgical technician: A surgical technician works in the operating room with physicians, nurses and anesthesiologists.

“We knew the job market for this was good,” Pierner said. “The program filled up within two hours.”

The program also provides another way into the health care field for students who might find the nursing program too difficult to enter, Pierner added.

The coursework allows students to get certificates in hospital sterilization procedures, another job in the health care field.

AODA counseling program: This program will allow students to get the state certification they need to run alcohol and drug rehab groups.

It’s a two-year associate degree program. Students with four-year degrees also can participate to get the state certification.

Leadership degree: “We’ve heard from a lot of businesses that say they want to promote good workers into leadership positions, but they don’t have any experience,” Pierner said.

The idea for the program also came out of the number of special leadership training courses BTC offered for local companies.

Other degrees in the works include digital marketing and engineering technology.

Most of these programs are small, but that’s always been the case at BTC.

“This has been true from the beginning” Pierner said. “Our community has as many needs as a large community. We have to be able to create small, high-quality boutique programs to meet certain niches.”

Is the college’s stategy working?

It seems to be.

  • In 2016, the college had 2,159 students. That number excludes dual-credit students, who are high school students taking college classes. The unemployment rate in August 2016 was 3.9%, according to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.
  • In 2017, the college had 2,258 students, a 4.5% increase. The unemployment rate in August 2017 was 3.7%.
  • In 2018, the college had 2,321 students, a 2.8% increase. The unemployment rate in August 2018 was 3.3%.

College officials foresee a small increase in enrollment this fall. However, meanwhile, the number of students attending summer sessions is rising, from 558 students in the summer of 2016 to more than 677 now, Tysse said.

One reason might be because BTC has expanded its summer offerings to include transferable general education credits for students who are attending four-year colleges but are home for the summer, he said.