Close to Home Takes on New Meaning

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By Sara Mackey

The year 2020 has been unlike any in our lifetimes. It’s safe to say the challenges of this year, between the pandemic, social unrest, economic distress and political uncertainty created some chaos and forced us to challenge some assumptions along the way. An example is the concept of college students staying close to home. For some students, attending a college close to home may never have been a consideration. But as many colleges moved entirely online to protect students and staff, even closing residence halls, proximity to home became a tremendous advantage for many students.

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Young woman sitting at a table working on a laptop

Young woman sitting at a table working on a laptop

As new generations of young people ascend into adulthood, many cultural and other factors occurring in their formative years influence their values and interests. The phenomenon of this collective experience shapes their outlook in a way that defines them differently from previous generations. In this regard, ‘Gen Z’ seems less interested in leaving the nest compared to some of their predecessors. This is especially true if staying at home can save them money, as they are also seemingly more frugal than some previous generations. Throw a pandemic into the mix, and suddenly, even students drawn to migrate to a far-off college for the experience might reconsider. In many ways, amidst the chaos, the technical colleges continue to be the most forgiving and adaptable option for those who choose it.

 For example, changing conditions at colleges sent many students back home at various times, unexpectedly, for at least part of the year. Many students who chose a technical college either because or despite it being close to home, had much less disruption than students in a dorm or on-campus housing especially those far from home. For those four-year students, moving home created some logistical challenges, possibly some anxiety, and a significantly- altered experience.

Elizabeth Theilman told WJFW News in Rhinelander that she planned to move to Madison to attend the Veterinary Technician program at Madison College. When the time came to rent, she decided to stay at home and take the same Madison College classes, but online from Rhinelander. “I didn’t want to pay for an apartment down there if I was just going to be doing online [classes], so that’s why I stayed here.”

Meanwhile, Samantha Zarm, prioritized her health in her decision to stay home and take online classes from Nicolet College in Rhinelander. She said, “If it weren’t for the Coronavirus, I would’ve probably gone to a different college, but I would rather stay at home and not risk getting COVID.”

Many students were already planning on attending college closer to home. Khael Pacheco from Madison planned on attending Madison College since his Junior year in high school because of the low cost and how close the campus is to his house. “My goal is to become a nurse after college. COVID-19 has caused classes to be completely online, which was more of a struggle than I originally imagined, but it was a great learning experience.”

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Headshot of student Haley Van Raden

Moraine Park Technical College Student Haley Van Raden

Haley Van Raden from Mayville, Wisconsin is attending Moraine Park Technical College. She says she always attended small schools when she was growing up. Even her high school graduating class topped out at 102 students. Because of this, her priorities in selecting a college included “close to home, small class sizes and affordable.”

In most “normal” years, students choosing to attend a technical college typically attend the college close to home or in a nearby community, unless their program of choice isn’t offered locally. Compare that to many four-year students, who not only tend to move out of their home, they sometimes move far from home as part of the experience. The unexpected campus closures this year placed an added burden on families of limited means. Some had space and resources (internet access, computers, etc.) for their student to continue classes from home, but others may have had to find other housing, potentially adding expense they may not have factored into their budget.

We don’t know yet how this year might influence future decisions of students, or their expectations, but it will certainly be a factor. And given the curve balls this year has thrown at students, their perspectives might just have changed enough to value “close to home” more than they would have without the pandemic.

Each student’s selection of a college, just like any major life decision, should be based on their unique needs and preferences. Also, that plans can and should pivot with their needs. We hope all student advocates - parents, counselors, and other influencers - give students the space to plan according to what works for them individually and realize that college is no more of a “one size fits all” scenario than it ever was. We also want all students to know that if and when they’re ready to attend a technical college, either in person or virtually, we’re ready for them.

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