How to recreate the outstate university and finally give students their money’s worth
The University of Wisconsin System is rightly considered one of the jewels of the state, providing a quality college education to tens of thousands of Wisconsinites every year. However, our universities do not perform all that well in several important aspects. Student attrition is unacceptably high, with a large proportion of students bailing out after their first year. The majority of students in the System fail to complete a four-year degree in four years. Many take longer than six – or fall by the wayside.
Having students take five, six or more years to complete an undergraduate degree represents a tremendous opportunity cost and a waste of resources. If someone who’s fully capable of earning a college degree doesn’t finish one, or never even starts, it represents an enormous loss for the state and a personal tragedy for the students, who will be limited in career options and earnings potential for the rest of their lives.
Our colleges right now spend a disproportionate amount of resources on matters that have a peripheral connection to actually educating students. The plethora of deans, associate deans, athletic department employees and the like takes resources away from what should be the primary mission: educating young men and women so they can lead fulfilling and productive lives.
Recognizing that political and bureaucratic inertia make it difficult to achieve major reforms in the UW System, we conducted a thought experiment that can serve as grist for the reform we so urgently need: What would an entirely new public university, created virtually from scratch, with none of the established strictures in place, look like?
For starters, it would have a curriculum that would steer students toward finishing in precisely four years. It would make summer school a part of the regular school calendar, and it would nudge students to spend a term abroad to expand their perspectives.
Professors would be judged more on their classroom performance than on their research agendas. Our new university would not aspire to become a Tier 1 research institution. A relatively small cohort of faculty, tasked with teaching upper-level classes in technical fields, would have research expectations and a lighter course load, but the rest of the faculty would be teaching more classes than is currently the case.
We would keep the liberal arts curriculum, but would scale back upper-level course offerings to some degree. We would also encourage humanities majors to acquire some modicum of instruction that would make them potentially more employable.
There would be a greater proportion of non-Ph.D.- holding instructional staff and more adjunct professors, with an emphasis on recruiting experienced men and women who can help students gain a practical understanding of their discipline. We would also encourage professors to use their education and training to engage more with the community. Tenure would exist, but it would protect intellectual freedom only. Professors who cannot perform adequately in the classroom would not be guaranteed jobs.
These days, the university is asked to do too many things. We advocate for a university with a singular focus: educating young men and women. There are few new schools being created these days for the simple reason that it can be very costly and complicated to do so. We recognize that, but at the same time hope we can begin the much-needed process of recreating universities built for a different time.
We recognize that the true promise of a new institution is the potential for experimentation. At least for the first few years, a new UW school would have fewer strictures in place, allowing creative administrators and entrepreneurial professors to try new things in order to engage students, boost graduation rates and improve the outcome for their graduates.
But with flexibility must come accountability. So we also recommend in the near term tying state funding for all schools to key metrics, including first-year attrition rates, graduation rates, ratios of students to administrators and, ultimately, employment success for graduates.