UW Colleges are essential component of Wisconsin Idea, workforce development

In Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, political scientist Robert Putnam cites research that points to the billions of dollars lost to American society over a generation when a large portion of our young adults are under-educated and under- or unemployed. These costs include literal costs to social welfare structures, as well as lost tax revenue.

In a recent article for Public Administration Review, former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson extolled the value of the University of Wisconsin System’s “Wisconsin Idea.” Governor Thompson singled out the La Follette School at UW–Madison when he wrote that “… graduates have the ability to critically analyze information, challenge assumptions, and defend their positions. These skills and knowledge are the threads of a strong and vibrant society.”

In an earlier book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Putnam wrote of the need for strong “social capital” in order to ensure the wellbeing of our communities. A key component of social capital is civic engagement.

What is the connection among Our Kids, Governor Thompson’s article, and Bowling Alone? How does the Wisconsin Idea manifest itself in the UW Colleges, leading to less burden on our state’s economy and strengthened social capital?

The UW Colleges are the transfer institution within the UW System. The Colleges also award an associate degree and an applied bachelor’s degree. By fulfilling each of these portions of our mission, the UW Colleges educate Wisconsin residents — 95% of our enrollment comes from Wisconsin — preparing them for well-paying employment and, just as importantly, for support of their communities through civic engagement and leadership. The attributes Governor Thompson ascribes to the La Follette School are central to how the UW Colleges educate and prepare students for the next stages of their educational and professional careers.

The Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, for 2015, the national unemployment rates for holders of associate degrees and bachelor’s degrees were only 3.8% and 2.8%, respectively. Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce reported in 2016 that 95% of the jobs created nationwide since the Great Recession have been filled by employees with more than a high school education. Wisconsin’s publicly funded higher education system helped our state post an unemployment rate of only 4.1% compared to 4.9% nationally in October 2016 (wisconsinjobcenter.org); these Wisconsin rates include all ages and levels of education.

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State investment in the UW System supports Wisconsin’s public-education infrastructure, making it possible for the UW Colleges to support our state’s civic, economic, and social foundation. The partnership that the UW Colleges have with their host counties and municipalities further strengthens that foundation at the local level.

The UW Colleges are an essential component of the UW System, which is essential to Wisconsin’s ability to remain culturally, economically, and socially strong. Through the Wisconsin Idea, the UW moves our state forward. Strong public support of the University of Wisconsin System is essential to the success of the UW Colleges, which are emblematic of the Wisconsin Idea and which help build strong social capital.

As our state moves into a new budget cycle, Wisconsin residents will face critical questions of how best to use our state’s fiscal resources. How will we fund initiatives to ensure that our state remains a vital place to live, work, and raise families? Where does publicly funded education — from K–12 through the baccalaureate degree and beyond — fit in this picture of strengthening our social capital, of preparing civically-minded citizens, of cultivating tomorrow’s leaders? As our elected officials grapple with these questions, they will look to us, their constituents, for input.

Dr. Charles E. Clark is regional executive officer and dean for the SW Region UW Colleges comprised of UW–Baraboo/Sauk County, UW–Richland, and UW–Rock County.

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