College Material

Programs Supporting Postsecondary Education Readiness and Completion in Milwaukee

December 2022


In the city of Milwaukee, the vast majority of students do not achieve both high school and college graduation. Local coalition All-In Milwaukee has termed this situation a “completion crisis,” and it is negatively impacting not only those students but also the region’s workforce challenges. Indeed, the area economy could suffer greatly unless metro Milwaukee leaders can develop strategies to increase the home-grown talent needed to fill the increasing number of vacant skilled positions created by retiring Baby Boomers and to fulfill the region’s broader economic development objectives.

A potential bright spot is the multitude of out-of-school programming efforts that have been created to provide support and interventions for Milwaukee teens. For example, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee offer a robust “Graduation Plus” program that works with youth across the city through high school and college, while College Possible embeds AmeriCorps members in specific Milwaukee high schools to coach youth through the same journey. Across town, local higher education institutions house federally-funded TRIO programs that recruit and support historically underserved students, while centers like the Department of Multicultural Student Services at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) and the Roberto Hernández Center at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (UWM) welcome and work with students from diverse backgrounds once they arrive on campus.

While efforts like these are laudable on their own, those who are administering them may find it difficult to take stock of others engaged in this work and to pursue appropriate coordination and collaboration. Meanwhile, philanthropic supporters of these efforts, school-based staff, and other stakeholders seeking to connect families to services also would benefit from greater awareness of the range of out-of-school efforts to improve college readiness in Milwaukee.

To provide greater clarity on key characteristics of this landscape – from student needs to available services to sources of funding – the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce approached the Wisconsin Policy Forum in late 2021 for assistance. In this report, we summarize the findings from our quantitative research, surveys solicited from out-of-school programming providers, and interviews with key informants to address the following questions:

  • Which organizations are providing formal out-of-school postsecondary readiness and success programming for Milwaukee youth, and who are they serving?
  • What specific programming are they providing?
  • How are these programs funded, and are they competing with one another for public or philanthropic resources?
  • Is the supply of these programs meeting the potential demand?
  • What do we know about the strengths and challenges of these programs?
  • How well aligned or positioned are these programs vis-à-vis overlaps, gaps, and expansion opportunities?

We conclude by sharing a series of insights that we hope will provide guidance to providers, funders, and other partners who are seeking to address the current “completion crisis.”

Readers of this report should note that we primarily concerned ourselves with students’ access to and success in postsecondary education, meaning formal education at a two-year or four-year higher education institution that culminates in degree attainment. Such focus should not be interpreted as a lack of appreciation for programs that focus on equipping students for immediate entry into the workforce, or programs that holistically support the well-being of youth without specifically focusing on their educational attainment. Rather, our narrow scope was informed by the extensive range of postsecondary readiness programming available and predicated on the concerns of business leaders that, while some jobs in the future will not require a college degree, Milwaukee is not currently well-equipped to fill those for which a degree will be a prerequisite.

Indeed, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act Local Plan published by Employ Milwaukee, Inc. for program years 2020 to 2023 notes that 35% of “occupations that are expected to have growth by 2026” in the local Milwaukee area require a bachelor’s degree or higher. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2021 American Community Survey, meanwhile, shows that residents in Milwaukee County who completed high school or its equivalent had median earnings of only $33,684 from the past 12 months, compared to $38,306 for those with an associate’s degree or some college and $57,848 for those with a bachelor’s degree. Examining students’ pathways through high school and college is thus critical both to the Milwaukee business community and to Milwaukee youth themselves and their future well-being. Continue reading…