Eight months after the coronavirus pandemic altered education in Wisconsin, Marc Seals found a new way to improve his students’ college experience next semester.
Seals, an associate professor of English at UW-Platteville’s Baraboo campus, shifted his class to virtual learning last week and this week started using “break-out rooms” via Zoom to allow students to work in small groups. One still seemed to be working by the end of class, so he left their session running; more than an hour later, Seals jumped in to figure out what they had been doing.
“They said, ‘This is the first time we’ve gotten to talk to each other all year long,’” Seals said. “And one student said, ‘These are the first friends I’ve made,’ and I realized that to a great extent our students are being kind of robbed of an important part of the college experience.
“The friends I made my first semester — my first year in college — are the best friends I have, and these students aren’t making those connections. So, I’m going to start doing group work on Zoom earlier in the semester next semester in hopes that they’ll make those friends.”
UW-Platteville Baraboo Sauk County plans to have a similar setup for the second semester as it had for the first, including some in-person classes, some fully online and some that blend both methods, said interim dean Michael Compton.
However, it won’t feature a traditional week-long spring break. To prevent potential COVID-19 outbreaks, Compton said officials would prefer students refrain from any major traveling even into 2021. So, the five days of spring break, now known as “Pioneer Pause” days, will be sprinkled throughout the semester as long weekends.
Staying the course next semester is fine with Seals, who said students and faculty are “kind of in the groove now.”
“Last spring was really hard. This semester’s much, much, much better, and I bet next semester will be even better,” Seals said. “... By next semester it’ll kind of be the new normal. Luckily, it’s a temporary new normal.”
Applications, admissions rebound
Enrollment proved challenging this fall amid great uncertainty but has since rebounded, according to campus spokesman John Christensen. Applications and admissions are higher this year than they were in the last two, following a slump in 2019.
As of Sunday, the campus has received 77 applications, which is 30% higher than the 59 it had received by the same date last year, according to Christensen. At the same time in 2018, 70 people had applied.
Compton said the growth since earlier in the semester can likely be attributed to a free application period in October and discomfort in early fall about going to school during a pandemic. He said student retention this year has been strong.
The campus accepted 49 new students this fall as of Sunday, compared to 32 by the same time in 2019 and 43 in 2018, according to Christensen. That represents a 53% jump in admissions over last year.
He noted that both figures will continue to grow, as the campus admits students up to the start of the term.
“With so much uncertainty about the future of the pandemic, we’re glad to see more students considering our campus,” Christensen wrote in an email.
Prospective students can still take in-person campus tours. According to the college website, there are two on-campus tour dates left this semester, Dec. 4 and 11 in addition to live virtual tours on the same days.
UW System data show 360 students enrolled at UW-Baraboo in fall 2019, a steep drop from the 494 enrolled in 2018 and 461 in 2017.
Expanding the menu
Looking to draw even more students, the Baraboo campus will roll out a new associate degree program in hospitality and tourism next fall, in partnership with UW-Stout, officials said. The college has added three other associate degrees since fall of 2019.
Compton said the recently added programs are doing well and “exceeding our expectations for a second-year program.”
The hospitality program will combine Baraboo’s courses in accounting, economics and general education with online courses through UW-Stout on hospitality-focused operations, employee relations and business practices, according to Christensen. Students in the program will also complete an internship within the industry and can choose to continue on to a bachelor’s degree with guaranteed admission and a full credit transfer to UW-Stout, he said.
Compton said UW-Platteville is reviewing all of its programs this year, including those at its two branch campuses. As a result, Compton said university officials would like to start offering more bachelor’s degrees at the Baraboo campus in the near future. He noted it currently offers a bachelor’s in arts and applied sciences, tailored to people who already have an associate degree.
Comparing the college campus to a restaurant, he said, “If I’m a restaurant owner and maybe I’m having a hard time getting customers in or customers maybe have changed — I don’t have as many as I used to have — maybe part of it’s my menu. Maybe I’m not offering menu items that are interesting and bringing people in.”
The campus will continue to offer transfer associate degree programs, but plans to “expand our menu options” to include bachelor’s degrees and certificates so it can better meet the community’s needs, Compton said. Officials will soon survey local industries to see what they’re looking for in prospective employees and what training opportunities they would like available for current staff, he added.
“We do the associate degrees really good. I think we can do more really good as well, and try to expand those options,” Compton said.
Follow Susan Endres on Twitter @EndresSusan or call her at 745-3506.
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