By Tom Still

A working group of Republican lawmakers in the
Assembly is examining whether the state’s technical college system should be
merged with the University of Wisconsin’s two-year campus network, mainly as a
way to save money.

On the surface, the question is worth asking. With 13
two-year campuses within the UW System and 16 technical college districts
running nearly 50 campuses or centers, is there cause to believe Wisconsin
taxpayers are spending too much to educate people who are working toward
something less than a baccalaureate degree?

That’s when it gets complicated. A reactive “yes” fails to
take into account the different missions of the technical colleges and the UW
System’s two-year campuses. The former is designed primarily to train workers
for specific careers and trades, while the latter provides a launch pad for
students who aren’t yet ready – or cannot afford – a four-year college

Read the full commentary in the Wisconsin State Journal here.

In either system, graduates can continue their education if
they want, or immediately enter the workforce. At a time when Wisconsin should
be worried about keeping young people at home, the tech colleges and the
two-year UW campuses have demonstrated they can do both.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t unrealized efficiencies, but
a merger absent a broader look at higher education in Wisconsin would be akin
to pushing on one side of a balloon. At a minimum, the balloon bulges
elsewhere. Push too hard and it bursts.

Rethinking higher education in Wisconsin – its many
“flavors,” its competitive pressures, its costs, its economic value and its
role in meeting the state’s needs for skilled workers – is best done

That’s why the Wisconsin Technology Council issued a set of
recommendations to help policymakers go about the critical process of assessing
the role of higher education – the UW System, the tech colleges and the
valuable role of private colleges – in our modern Innovation and Knowledge Economy.

Here are factors to be considered in fine-tuning this vital
economic engine:

Recognize fundamental differences between the UW’s
doctoral-granting campuses and the system’s four-year institutions
Doctoral campuses are research engines and producers of advanced degrees, with
different faculty requirements, student bodies and even facilities.
Comprehensive campuses are known first for undergraduate educational quality
and access. Wisconsin must maintain UW-Madison’s status as an elite research
university, elevate UW-Milwaukee’s capacity in the state’s largest city and
maintain excellence and access for our four-year comprehensive campuses.
Attempts to standardize missions would be stultifying and unresponsive to a
changing marketplace.

Attract and retain the best faculty and researchers at
all of our institutions
. The best teachers produce better-prepared graduates,
who form the workforce of tomorrow. The best researchers excel at attracting
the external grant funding that creates jobs, leads to patentable discoveries,
and often is the catalyst for the formation of high-growth companies. To better
compete, Wisconsin must attract and retain faculty members who feel they have
the freedom to teach, research and grow within one of the nation’s premier

Keep our universities affordable and accessible for all
residents who want to get a college education in Wisconsin.
We must attract
the best and brightest students from Wisconsin and around the globe, and excel
at retaining the best and brightest. Wisconsin ranks 30th among 50 states in
the percentage of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher. It ranks 27th in
per capita student aid. State policies should aspire to improve those rankings,
just as higher education should encourage a culture of achieving cost
efficiencies. Administrative functions can be consolidated to save money and
improve service without touching the core enterprise.

Improve the transfer of knowledge and ideas into a
prosperous Wisconsin economy.
We need to capture innovation, nurture its
development, encourage commercialization and foster the pathway to success.
This requires removing internal roadblocks and identifying and filling the gaps
in the development continuum. For students in every field, Wisconsin must excel
at the translation of knowledge gained in the classroom to skills that advance
productive careers.

Be aware of the competitive world around us. Policies
and strategies must evolve with an eye to the competitive dynamics of other
states and nations. If we have advantages, others will try to emulate and
surpass us. Wisconsin cannot be complacent about its strengths and it cannot close
the competitive gap without understanding what those ahead of us are doing.

Wisconsin has grappled successfully with major issues in the
past by taking a bipartisan approach, often with the help of blue-ribbon
citizen commissions. The future of higher education in Wisconsin is too
important to be done piecemeal; let’s adjust the air levels in the balloon, not
burst it.