The Stories of Higher Education in Wisconsin

Questions concerning the purposes and goals of higher education have long been debated. Should higher education be considered a public good or a private benefit? Should it focus on liberal arts or vocational preparation? And whom should higher education serve? Recently, however, the debate over the aims of higher education in the state of Wisconsin has become increasingly polarized. Namely, following Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s educational reforms to more tightly align public higher education with business interests, Wisconsinites appear to be more divided than ever (Cramer, 2016;  Lowry, 2015).

In the context of this raising animosity, our team of student researchers at the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions (CCWT) gathered together to create a qualitative research study to examine the core issue of the debate – What do Wisconsinites see as the aims of higher education in the state and what experiences, social background, and educational history influence their views?

To do this, our team met for a series of six research workshops to review relevant literature, complete research ethics training, and design an interview protocol and recruitment strategy. Our team, mentored by CCWT researchers Bailey Smolarek and Matthew Wolfgram, ultimately interviewed 40 adult Wisconsinites who ranged in ages, demographics and educational backgrounds. After transcribing the interviews, we analyzed the data to look for themes and patterns, and wrote research memos to critically understand how our data informs our research question and the larger context of Wisconsin’s higher education debates (note, our definition of “higher education” includes all varieties of post-secondary education, including both 4-year and 2-year institutions).

After completing our analysis, we were surprised to find that Wisconsinites’ views on the aims and goals of higher education are not as polarized as we might have thought. We found that participants considered six possible aims of higher education: Civic and Community Engagement, Employment, Interpersonal/Critical Thinking Skills, Personal Growth and Enrichment, Social Mobility, and notions concerning the Wisconsin Idea (i.e. the university being a resource to Wisconsin communities). This table provides a graph of the number of participants who discussed each of these six aims.

The vast majority of our participants (73%) argued that higher education should instill in students the values and knowledge to contribute to society through civic and community engagement and leadership. Almost as many participants (70%) also argued that one of the primary aims of higher education was to get a good job after graduation to secure a stable financial future. It is important to point out that many of the same participants who emphasized the employment and financial consequences of college also included its social benefits as a primary aim. For example, 63 percent of participants emphasized the need for students to acquire intellectual skills, such as interpersonal and communication skills and critical thinking, and 48 percent described the importance of personal growth and enrichment, such as finding one’s identity and broadening one’s worldview. Additionally, one-third (30%) of participants also emphasized the need for higher education to facilitate social mobility for low income, first-generation, and/or racial minorities by providing access to professional or otherwise “middle-class employment.” Finally, 18 percent of our interviewees discussed higher education as a resource to Wisconsin communities through examples concerning UW Extension programs, faculty conducted research, and the economic benefits provided by the UW system schools.

This eclectic orientation to the aims of higher education was shared by Wisconsinites currently in college and alumni, by those with a 4-year and a technical-college background, and by those without college background but who had family and friends with college experience. Will, for example, graduated from a college in the UW System with a degree in computer science, and later returned to school to become a pastor. The quotes from his interview illustrate the pattern across our participants, that when asked to consider the aims of higher education, and when give a chance to speak on the matter, they did not tend to view the issue as an opposition between career outcomes and personal enrichment, and between individual and social goods. Will starts by explaining his motivation to attend college in purely economic terms:

“I mean if you finish college you will have more opportunities to find jobs, to have more doors open for you… That’s why I chose to go to college.”

However, he did not make a distinction between these financial and career benefits of college to individuals, and the benefits of college to society, because he viewed quality employment, stable housing, and financial independence as conditions of good citizenship:

“I think the more people get an opportunity to learn, the better they can become a good citizen in terms of jobs, in terms of housing, in terms of being able to take care of their own life and situation.”

And in addition to economic outcomes of college to individuals and society, Will believed that higher education should inculcate in students a broad variety of skills, all of which are associated with the tradition of liberal learning, including:

“obviously it’s reading and writing. But also communication, having the wisdom to reason things out.

And furthermore, higher education should inculcate the values and skills associated with good citizens who:

“use that knowledge and help either your church, your community … so that you can share those assets with people in the community as well.”

Governor Scott Walker and others have worked to make radical amends to what can be included as the proper aims of higher education for our UW System, to align it only and entirely with the business interests of the state. The wide range of Wisconsinites that we interviewed for the study seem to think otherwise.


Authors: Ryan Mulrooney and his co-authors Micayla Darrow, Cassandra Duernberger, Cassidy Hartzog, Kathryn Hendrickson Gagen, David Singer, and Isabella Vang are UW-Madison undergraduate students and researchers for the project “Documenting the Aims of Higher Education in Wisconsin” at the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions.



Lowry, R. (2015, February 18). The Education of Scott Walker. Politico.

Cramer, Katherine (2016). The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.