In 1911, Wisconsin became the first state in the U. S. to establish a System of technical education institutions. The legislation provided state funding, required every community of 5,000 or more to establish a local board with taxing authority, created an assistant for “industrial” under the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, and created a “State Board of Industrial Education.”
In the same year, Wisconsin also became the first state to establish formal apprenticeships, with the technical education institutions as the primary location for paid classroom learning.
Based in part on Wisconsin’s lead, Congress passed the Smith-Hughes Act in 1917, the first federal legislation specifically designed to promote “vocational” education.
In 1917, the Legislature changed the name of the State Board of Industrial Education to the “State Board of Vocational Education”, authorized it to employ a state director and designated it as the sole agency to work with a newly created federal board under Smith-Hughes. In 1937, the board became the “State Board of Vocational and Adult Education”. During that same period, the Milwaukee vocational school began to offer college transfer courses.
The 1960s saw many changes to the System. In 1961, the state board was authorized to offer associate degrees, and the 1963 federal Vocational Education Act helped local boards to build new facilities. In 1965, state legislation required a system of Vocational, Technical and Adult Education (VTAE) districts covering the entire state to be established by 1970, and it changed the board’s name to the “State Board of Vocational, Technical and Adult Education.” Two years later, the legislature dropped “State” from the Board’s name. College transfer programs were authorized in Madison, Milwaukee and Rhinelander.
As a result of these many changes in the 1960s, enrollments more than doubled between 1967 and 1982 and the number of associate degree programs significantly increased. Other major statutory changes included the requirement that “VTAE” schools charge tuition and that they improve cooperation and coordination with the University of Wisconsin (UW) System.
In 1993, the System was renamed the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS), and the state board became the Wisconsin Technical College System Board and what had been known as “District VTAE schools” became technical colleges.
In the years since, the System has expanded offerings for K-12 students, sharpened its focus on guided pathways and lifelong learning, and improved the connection between education and economic development. It has also expanded support and pursued equity for groups that historically have had less access to and support in postsecondary education, including women, people of color, rural populations, people with disabilities, veterans, English Language Learners and those without a high school diploma, and jail and prison populations.
For more information and links to our system publications, please visit our system website wtcsystem.edu.