A team of UW students are “Documenting the aims of higher education in Wisconsin”

How do Wisconsinites consider the aims of public higher education in the state?

And, what experiences have influenced their thinking on this question?

There are many possible aims of higher education, including:

  • To provide students with the job training, skills, and credentials necessary to participate in the job market,
  • To cultivate an expanded and critical worldview;
  • To develop a sense of community service and democratic participation;
  • To facilitate the social mobility of individuals from historically repressed communities;
  • And for its staff to conduct research and service that benefits the state.

The citizens of Wisconsin are the primary constituents of public higher education in the state—they both pay for it through their tuition and their taxes and they are its primary beneficiaries.  And given the high costs, public debate, and many roles and important social and economic impacts in the state, state legislators, policymakers, and higher education administrators would be wise to know more about how the Wisconsinites consider the aims of public higher education.

Public higher education in the State of Wisconsin includes the flagship University Wisconsin and the 12 other UW Systems comprehensive universities, the freshman-sophomore campuses programs at 13 UW Colleges campuses, and many more UW Extension programs scattered throughout the state. All total, the UW System estimates it serves over 1 million students, nearly all of whom are citizens of the state (https://www.wisconsin.edu/campuses). And additionally, there are the 16 colleges of the Wisconsin Technical College System and their many centers and extension facilities which serve students in locations near every urban center in the state and throughout the often underserved rural regions as well. There are also two federally funded tribal colleges in the state.

The constituents of this diverse and expansive system of public higher education are varied and numerous. They include its alumni, and the current and prospective students and their families, the administrators and staff of the campuses and centers around the state and the people in the communities in which these institutions are embedded.

A major strand of our research at the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions is to document the diversity of perspectives and experiences of higher education, and to develop insights based on this holistic and detailed understanding that might better inform the debates and policymaking process.

There seems to be a pressing need for this kind of research. Our colleague at UW, Professor Katherine Cramer Walsh in the Department of Political Science, has documented the disconnect between the reality of the high economic and social impact of the UW in the state—measured in various ways—and the sometimes negative public perception of our university throughout the state (https://www.wiscape.wisc.edu/wiscape/publications/working-papers/wp013). She recruited Wisconsin citizens from around the state by hanging out in public places where people congregated. The interviews that she conducted documented a diversity of perceptions about the UW and its role in the state, some of which was critical of the UW’s elitism and its lack of relevance the issues that rural Wisconsinites face. The evidence shows that in the current polarized political climate a more nuanced account of how diverse Wisconsinites consider higher education is badly needed. Administrators and staff can use the evidence of how Wisconsinites consider the aims of higher education to re-focus their efforts to do relevant work and to communicate with these diverse constituents—including rural citizens—and policymakers can design higher education policies that are informed by their constituents’ real concerns (and not by the politically polarized representations of their concerns).

Following Prof. Cramer Walsh’s innovative research and it eye opening findings, we would like to ask questions about how citizens consider the goals of higher education more generally and what experiences have influenced those views. Higher education in the state is a great deal more than the University of Wisconsin. And we need to know about the experiences and perspectives of a diverse range of Wisconsinites.

So, we assembled a team of nine UW undergraduates with diverse academic backgrounds from the State of Wisconsin. Together, we read and discussed literature on the key themes and debates relating to higher education in the United States and in Wisconsin. The topics included higher education financing and student debt, the history of higher education policy, the relationship between higher education and democracy, and the roles race, class, and gender in the structuring of the experience and outcomes of college. We trained the students in research ethics and the methods of social science interviewing. And then, together, we built an interview protocol designed to engage Wisconsin citizens in a discussion about their life experiences relating to higher education and how they consider the aims of public higher education in the state. The students are now spending their summer each conducting audio recorded interviews with five members of their community.

Given the demographics of the state, many of the interviewees will be white and broadly middle-class, although we also planned to recruit people from a working-class and high-income backgrounds, some of which will be racial minorities. Here are a few descriptors of some of the Wisconsinites that our research team plans to interview:

A white middle-class science teacher from the suburbs

An LGBTQ-identified UW student

A Hmong refugee, first-generation American

An octogenarian, white middle class widow

An American Indian college student

A female African-American social service provider

A white male, small business owner from rural Wisconsin

And many others …

We are very excited to learn from our interviews with these citizens and to start the process of identifying and analyzing the patterns in how they consider the aims of higher education. Given the diversity in our sample, we expect the participants in our study will espouse the wide and complex ideological range that is typical of the American political spectrum (and of course, given the current political climate there will likely be some polarization as well).

Stay tuned for further blog posts about our project! We plan to post a discussion of our methodology of collaborative and community engaged research; and we will be sharing some of what our team of student researchers found before the end of 2017!


Matthew Wolfgram and Bailey Smolarek codirect the project “Documenting the aims of higher education in Wisconsin,” sponsored by the newly launched Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions at UW-Madison. Dr. Wolfgram is an anthropologist of education and Assistant Director at the Center. Dr. Smolarek is a qualitative researcher specializing in language and education and education policy studies, and Assistant Researcher at the Center.