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Outgoing Parkside chancellor shares takeaways from leading one of most diverse UW schools

UW-Parkside Chancellor Debbie Ford.
UW-Parkside Chancellor Debbie Ford.

University of Wisconsin-Parkside Chancellor Debbie Ford is stepping down after 14 years leading the Kenosha-area campus.

Parkside is the most racially diverse UW school, with about 34% non-white students. It also serves a larger share of low-income and first-generation students than the UW System as a whole.

As a first-generation college student herself, Ford has focused on improving student success during her time at Parkside. The campus is working to increase the number of students graduating by 50% by 2025.

Since that goal was established in 2019, Ford says Parkside is about halfway there — increasing from about 800 graduates in 2019 to about 1,000 in 2022.

"For three years in a row, [we've seen] the highest number of graduates, even with the impacts of a global pandemic," Ford says.

Ford says Parkside is working on both enrollment and completion to boost its graduates. Its enrollment fell from 4,420 in 2019 to 3,966 in 2022.

"In terms of enrollment, what we're very concerned about here in the Racine-Kenosha area, is the decline in college going and how the pandemic has really impacted that," Ford says. "More students have opportunities to go right from high school education to work. We have to have pathways where students can do both [working and higher education.]"

To help with college completion, Parkside has implemented a number of "student success" strategies. Those include:

  • A "15 to Finish" initiative to encourage students to take 15 credits per semester, which keeps them on track to graduate in four years.
  • Creating "math pathways" so math classes are more aligned with students' majors. "That means not every student is going to take college algebra," Ford says.
  • Redoing entry-level math courses and getting rid of remedial math.
  • Adding academic advisors and student success coaches.

Parkside's retention rate has gone from 58% in 2009 when she first became chancellor, she says, to over 70% in most of the years since then. "We're striving to get that higher, closer to 80%," Ford says.
Ford says Parkside has particularly made progress with Hispanic student enrollment and retention. Parkside is the first UW campus to achieve Emerging Hispanic-Serving Institution status — a designation given to colleges with 15% Hispanic enrollment.

As UW schools struggle with declining enrollment and stagnant state revenue, Ford says university leaders need to continue spreading the message of the value of public higher education.

"My experiences as an undergraduate transformed my life. It opened doors to opportunities that I didn't think would be available to me as a first-generation college student," Ford says. "Higher education is an investment in our future, and something I hope our colleagues in the Legislature will continue to invest in."

Ford says it was a bittersweet decision to leave Parkside, but she couldn't pass up the opportunity to lead Indiana University Southeast, which serves her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.

"My hope is my successor will take Parkside to even higher heights," Ford says.

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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