Wisconsinites Agree on Broad Purposes of Higher Education Despite Divisive Political Climate

UW–Madison undergraduates lead research that finds state residents with opposing views believe higher ed serves multiple aims

October 30, 2018

Matthew Wolfgram and Bailey Smolerek (first and fifth in back row) and their undergraduate student researcher team.

Matthew Wolfgram and Bailey Smolerek (first and fifth in back row) and their undergraduate student researcher team.

A new study co-led by two educational researchers with the Center for Research on College–Workforce Transitions, part of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research in UW–Madison’s School of Education, and eight UW–Madison undergraduates asked a diverse set of Wisconsinites about their current views on the purpose of public higher education in the state. Responses to the study, published as a new CCWT technical report, “Documenting the Aims of Higher Education in Wisconsin,” demonstrate that irrespective of background, age or political affiliation, state residents share the belief that higher education serves broad purposes.

Respondents placed equal importance on five purposes: career preparedness, personal development, skills acquisition, critical thinking, and cultivation of civic and democratic values.

These findings are a startling contrast to the climate of political polarization in Wisconsin. Significant changes in state education policy in recent years — a $250 million cut to the state’s university system in the 2015-2017 biennial budget, the elimination of faculty tenure from state law, weakened shared governance, and UW-Stevens Point’s proposal to eliminate 13 humanities and social science majors while expanding STEM and technical degrees— have stoked this division. Many view these developments as advocating for a narrow conception of the aims of higher education focused on economic development, vocational education and aligning the public educational system with business interests.

“With Wisconsin so divided right now, we expected diverse state residents with opposing political affiliations to have little in common in their views of higher education, but this research doesn’t bear that out,” says Matthew Wolfgram, an anthropologist and the assistant director of CCWT who co-led the study. “Their eclectic ideas indicate they view it in a much broader way than our political discourse suggests,” he shares.

The qualitative research study employed in-depth interviews of a diverse sample of 40 Wisconsin residents during the summer of 2017. Eight UW–Madison undergraduate student researchers from a variety of social and academic backgrounds conducted the study. The study’s qualitative approach and its use of students employing a model of inquiry called “Participatory Action Research” differentiate the research from other studies documenting cultural change in higher education.

Preferred research methods use large surveys presenting participants with a predetermined set of (often mutually exclusive) answers from which to choose. The qualitative approach of this study affords a more complex story. Bailey Smolerak, CCWT senior researcher and study co-leader explains, “Interviews provide the opportunity for participants to fully consider and elaborate upon their views, whereas both survey research and recent public debates on the aims of higher education tend to paint a more simplistic picture. Therefore, qualitative inquiry provides a more nuanced lens on the topic.”

Further setting this study apart, undergraduate students from UW-Madison — a primary target of state government’s higher education policy reforms — developed the research inquiry and executed its protocol. Smolerak shares, “Although students are those most impacted by education policy, they are conspicuously left out of decision-making and debates. Their inclusion as not only participants in this study but as researchers who design, conduct and analyze its results gives just attention to the student experience, allowing them to be the authority on the data they collect.”

The researchers identified five purposes for higher education that emerged during their individual interviews with the 50 study participants:

  • Civic and/or community engagement as an aim of higher education so citizens gain knowledge to become informed and participate in democracy was mentioned by 29 individuals;
  • Employment, some framing higher education as an absolute necessity for obtaining a “good” job,  was discussed by 28 respondents;
  • Interpersonal and critical thinking skills defined as an ability to understand, listen, and discuss different ideas and to be open-minded was identified by 25;
  • Personal growth, enriching one’s life through engagement with new ideas, subjects and peoples was offered by 19; and
  • Social mobility and surpassing socioeconomic barriers was mentioned by 12.

With higher education policy debates in the spotlight on the eve of Wisconsin’s November 6th gubernatorial election, this study has timely implications. “While recent policy discussions in Wisconsin have focused primarily on higher education serving as a means to employment, our study indicates that our residents do not want higher education to be focused on a single aim. Rather, it demonstrates the need to value the multiple aims higher education serves and to consider crucial student input,” Smolerak concludes.

The full “Documenting the Aims of Higher Education in Wisconsin,” technical report provides excerpts from participant interviews, along with further study on the barriers Wisconsin residents perceive for accessing and succeeding in higher education.  


Further Information

The Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions is part of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. CCWT’s mission is to conduct and support research, critical policy analysis, and public dialogue on student experiences with the transition from college to the workforce to inform policies, programs, and practices that promote academic and career success for all learners. The center also focuses on identifying effective strategies and policies for teaching, work-based learning, advising, hiring and training that facilitate student and employee acquisition of 21st century competencies and favorable employment outcomes.

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