Kevin Reilly column: The UW and workforce development in Wisconsin

The following column by UW System President Kevin Reilly ran in the Friday, July 20 edition of the ‘Green Bay Press-Gazette’:

For Wisconsin to thrive in today’s knowledge economy, the state must capitalize on the strengths of its higher education institutions – unique assets that serve as engines of economic renewal and stable sources of strength.

As the drum beats louder for more and better jobs, colleges and universities across this nation are taking active roles on both sides of the equation – supporting business growth and job creation, while also developing the educated workforce of tomorrow. While near-term workforce gaps deserve attention, the state must also make smart long-term investments in the entire workforce pipeline.

A study from the Center for Law and Social Policy and the Center for Higher Education Management Systems shows that closing the education gap can improve the state’s bottom line. If Wisconsin can match the performance of states with significantly higher numbers of college graduates, revenues could increase by $815 million per year. That sounds like a smart investment to me.

While some point to rising levels of student debt and a weak job market as compelling reasons to think twice about going to college, experts counter that disinvesting in higher education – whether it’s at the individual, state, or federal level – is short-sighted and likely to hurt all of us in the long run. Nations around the world are ramping up their production of college graduates, and the U.S. cannot afford to fall further behind.

The UW is committed to helping get more people into and through college. In Wisconsin, about one in five adults – or 700,000 people – have some college credits but lack complete degrees. Research indicates that many of these citizens want to earn their degrees. Recognizing that their educational needs differ from traditional students, the UW is adapting its offerings and how those offerings are delivered. We now offer approximately 4,600 distance education courses annually and more than 100 UW degrees and certificates online, including programs in nursing, engineering, and other high-demand fields.  All are created and taught by outstanding UW faculty.

We are committed to developing the first-ever UW flexible degree model, in which those same outstanding UW faculty will define competencies in high-demand programs, along with a variety of self-paced courses and assessment tools by which students can demonstrate that they have mastered these competencies.

Preparing students for the workforce and for their role as citizens in a 21st-century democracy goes beyond teaching specific occupational skills. Today, 181,000 UW students of all ages are developing abilities in areas such as effective communication, creative problem-solving, numeracy, ethics, and internationalization. These and other attributes, which transcend particular career fields, empower people to adapt to changing circumstances, and to succeed in future careers that do not yet exist.

Yes, we do need more welders, mechanics, plumbers, and machinists in Wisconsin who have the higher-level skills that match today’s sophisticated manufacturing sector. We also need more highly educated citizens who will emerge as leaders in business, government, medicine, and other crucial fields. We will expect them to think clearly about the quality of life in Wisconsin, and act in their professional and personal lives to improve it. Many of those future leaders are today’s UW students.

The Morrill Act, which established the nation’s land-grant colleges and universities 150 years ago amid the unthinkable horrors of the Civil War, sought with sure foresight to promote “liberal and practical education.” In Wisconsin and elsewhere, this century’s knowledge-based economy demands a workforce versed in both.

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Kevin P. Reilly is president of the University of Wisconsin System


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