My beat begins where schools, employers and workers merge. Help support this journalism.

The cost of college. Workforce shortages. Educational inequality. We’ve all heard those phrases. How do they fit together?

I don't have all of the pieces of the puzzle, but I am searching for answers as part of a new reporting beat at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel focusing on the intersection of education and Wisconsin’s workforce. I'm posing questions like:

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel created this new position — I’m still working out a catchy title — in partnership with Report for America, a national service organization that places reporters in newsrooms across the country to cover under-reported topics and help reverse declines in local news coverage.

Role of universities, technical colleges changing rapidly

Although I have a background in K-12 and higher education reporting, I’m starting from scratch here since I began work in Milwaukee this summer. This is a brand-new beat that straddles education, business, government and families. I don’t have a prior reporter’s stories to reference or a specific part of the state to cover, but I do have plenty of data pointing to cultural and demographic shifts related to education and the workforce.

Support local journalism: Make a tax-deductible donation to continue this coverage

Let's start with what we know:

  • Just about every news outlet is trying to answer this question: Why are fewer high school graduates going to college? They point to the rising cost of a college degree, prevalence of student loan debt and the COVID-19 pandemic. Those factors are prompting more people to ask: Is college worth it?

  • Fewer people in Wisconsin are going to a college or university. In the 2016-17 school year, 62% of high school graduates enrolled in a college or university the first fall after graduation. By 2021-22, the figure had fallen to 51%.

  • Colleges and universities in Wisconsin have been experiencing declines since before the pandemic. For example, fall enrollment across the UW System campuses peaked in 2010 at about 182,000 students and fell to 161,000 in 2022. Full-time-equivalent students at Wisconsin technical colleges, enrollment fell from about 78,000 in 2012-13 to 58,500 in 2021-22.

Demographics of aging, population loss hurt Wisconsin

These cultural shifts are particularly important in Wisconsin because of the state's demographic trends, which are not working in its favor:

  • Baby boomers, the generation born between 1946 and 1964, are aging out of the workforce. Younger workers naturally need to pick up the slack, but that might be difficult in Wisconsin, where young people are leaving the state faster than moving in.

  • Between 2012 and 2020, 106,000 people younger than 26 moved out of Wisconsin, while fewer than 89,000 moved in. About a third of those leaving moved to bordering states. Unless that trend changes — and it’s not projected to — Wisconsin's prime working-age population, people between the ages of 25 and 64, is projected to shrink by an estimated 130,000 people by 2030.

  • The state’s unemployment rate is 3.2% as of October, and has been hovering near historic lows for months. But certain job sectors are predicted to add significant numbers of jobs by 2030, and will need more skilled workers to fill them, such as education and health services, trade, transportation and utility workers, and manufacturing workers.

Intertwined through all of those issues is another big topic: equity. When I investigate the links between education and workforce in Wisconsin, I want to understand how systems are meeting everyone’s needs, not just some people's — like people with disabilities, people re-entering the workforce after incarceration, people who did not receive equitable support from teachers at a young age or whose K-12 schools lacked financial resources.

These are the things that have been on my mind since July 10. Since then, I’ve written about the statewide increase in youth apprentices, an innovative program to bring workers into farming jobs and billing issues at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.

But when it comes to these bigger picture questions, I still have a lot to figure out. I believe that’s a good thing.

I started career reporting on education in Iowa

Before moving to Milwaukee, I spent two years covering K-12 and higher education for the Iowa City Press-Citizen and Des Moines Register. I received six reporting awards from the Iowa Newspaper Association during my time in Iowa, including the Outstanding Young Iowa Journalist award.

I began working when I was 16 in a warehouse for a Minnesota gift store chain. From there I've worked in retail selling pet food and supplies, as a coffee shop barista, a breakfast line cook and a fine dining waitress. I also have experience in one of the most worker-strapped job sectors out there: health care. Between reporting jobs, I worked as a full-time direct care worker and activities staff member in an assisted living facility memory care unit near Madison.

I went to public K-12 schools in my hometown of Minneapolis and got a bachelor's degree in English literature and journalism from the University of Minnesota Twin-Cities. I also studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina during college and am comfortable interviewing sources in Spanish.

What is Report for America and how does it work?

The reality is that news organizations today are struggling. Between 2004 and 2020, the number of newsroom employees in the U.S. dropped 57%. New research just released by Northwestern University found the country is losing an average of 2.5 local newspapers a week, leaving more than half of all U.S. counties classified as "news deserts," places where citizens have limited access to reliable local news and information.

Report for America aims to reverse that trend by adding reporters to local news organizations around the U.S. Here's how the process works: Newsrooms identify under-covered topics and apply to Report for America for a new staff member. The nonprofit chooses which newsrooms to support, then recruits and screens journalists to fill the positions. It’s up to the newsroom to choose from a pre-selected batch of candidates, filling a position that will last up to three years.

Support local journalism: Make a tax-deductible donation to help maintain this essential reporting

The newsroom and RFA each pay a share the cost of reporters’ salaries. The local newsroom is required to raise funds for the final portion of the salary to help make the position sustainable. In addition to their reporting, reporters are expected to lead a service project related to youth media literacy in their community.

At the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, there are three Report for America Corps members: Madeline Heim, who covers the Mississippi River basin and Caitlin Looby, who focuses on the Great Lakes. At our sister newspapers, Madison Lammert covers Wisconsin's child care industry and early childhood education at the Post-Crescent; Danielle DuClos is the K-12 education reporter at the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Three reporters at the Journal Sentinel, Jessica Rodriguez, Sarah Volpenhein and Frank Vaisvilas, served as corps members in Wisconsin and have been promoted to permanent newsroom positions.

Send me your stories: I need help fitting puzzle together

First and foremost, I need to talk with people at all intersections of this issue. I’m just as open to your personal stories and anecdotes as I am to news tips. So, please let me know: Are you an employer struggling to find skilled workers? A teacher who sees students leave school for the workforce?

I also want this beat to evolve over time. That means I need feedback from readers. How are we doing? What should we cover more?

My inbox is always open:

Cleo Krejci covers higher education, vocational training and retraining as a Report For America corps member based at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Contact her at Follow her on X @_CleoKrejci

If you want to donate by mail, please add to the subject line "Report for America Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Campaign." The check should be addressed as follows: The GroundTruth Project, Lockbox Services, 9450 SW Gemini Dr, PMB 46837, Beaverton, Oregon 97008-7105.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: College, jobs, training, workforce needs in Wisconsin drive reporting