Sunday, April 17, 2011

Reforming Wisconsin Public Higher Education

As we move into the closing months of debate over Governor Scott Walker's budget bill, it is becoming clear that there's little appetite for the New Badger Partnership outside of Madison. That's not to say that the Wisconsin Idea Partnership is likely to succeed either.

Instead, the state has begun a very important discussion about the future of public higher education. No one--whether pro or con-NBP-- seems to think what we're doing right now is working terribly well. And the metrics would seem to bear that out --our degree completion rates, access rates, affordability rates-- all are essentially mediocre. We can and must do better, and it's in that spirit that I will begin to propose some principles and prospects for reform.

My proposals are grounded in the spirit of the Morrill Land-Grant College Act of 1862 that helped create the University of Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin Idea that helped sustain it. They are also grounded in decades of empirical research on undergraduate education and the actual experiences of today's college students. Finally, please note that they are primarily meant to stimulate discussion and debate-- not to preclude it. Wisconsin needs so badly to engage in a series of frank, fearless conversations about higher education with a much wider representation of opinions and ideas than it has before. Now is the time, and here are some thoughts to get us started.

(1) In the 21st century, the two systems of Wisconsin public higher education could work together to meet the needs for undergraduate and graduate education throughout the state. Right now, they are systems divided, competing for scarce resources. While they enjoy different missions they are in many ways complementary and their work needs to be coordinated. Therefore, I call for serious discussion about creating a central, comprehensive governance board overseeing the work of all of Wisconsin's public colleges and universities. In other words, that board would be charged with the future of both the University of Wisconsin System and the Wisconsin Technical College System. The creation of this kind of governing body should be aimed at elevating the educational missions of our institutions and protecting them from the inappropriate incursion of politics (e.g. intrusions from both the governor's office and the Legislature). Given that both parties have, at various times, objected to the involvement of political actors in the work of these schools, this approach could (eventually) garner bipartisan support. That's not to say it will be without pain-- the move would nearly undoubtedly result in the discovery of some mission overlap or creep and/or redundancy in some services that could results in closures and/or job loss. These are hard truths, but not ones that should be avoided.

(2) To ensure cost-effective operations, all institutions of higher education in Wisconsin need to be treated as the schools they are. In other words, they require greater autonomy from state government in a key set of domains. They are unlike other state agencies in terms of their work, their personnel, and their ways of operating. Schools are not businesses, and will not run effectively (and therefore efficiently) as such. Serious consideration needs to be given to finding the means with which to free them from red tape with regards to (a) personnel issues including hiring and compensation, (b) procurement, and (c) construction.

(3) Just like many other not-for-profit institutions, going forward the Wisconsin higher education system should be allowed to retain the revenues it generates as long as it uses them solely for educational purposes-- in other words to satisfy its mission. The state should not be allowed to "sweep" said revenues from the System for non-educational purposes. The possible exception might be to take them for use in funding the state need-based financial aid program -- but ideally that program should be administered by a board that coordinates the work of both UW System and WTCS. Notice that I am suggesting that individual institutions may still have to give up some revenues to the System; that sort of tax facilitates redistributive activities that benefit the common good as long as the revenues are used for educational purposes.

(4) Ensuring the accessibility and affordability of Wisconsin public higher education in the 21st century requires strong oversight of tuition and financial aid policies. Left to their own devices, colleges and universities have significant impetus to act to maximize the opportunities for their employees rather than their students. To control this tendency, a central board needs to coordinate these policies across institutions-- this is an important part of what makes them part of a system. It is also what makes degree completion possible for students who--for a wide variety of reasons-- attend multiple institutions en route to a degree (today that includes more than 1 in 2 undergraduates).

There are four ideas. Let's have at 'em- and let's develop more. Please join the conversation.

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