Higher Education in Wisconsin

This is the first of the Patch blog posts. I’m not sure it sounds like me, but then, sometimes I sound too much like me for my own good.

A couple of weeks ago Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker unveiled a new online degree program. He and another UW official lauded the flexible degree program as one that would allow adult learners to use real world experience to fulfill degree requirements. In addition, course work would be arranged to allow for a more flexible time span instead of the traditional semester constraints.

Yippee! I’m all for flexible education. And, even though a report card recently left Wisconsin wanting, I’ve seen enough (and paid enough!) into higher education around this country lately to know that report card certainly didn’t measure what I consider important. I think The University of Wisconsin system is a great value.

I graduated from UW-Milwaukee in 2005 returning to college after a break of many years. I chose a traditional daytime approach, layered classes into Tuesdays and Thursdays for four semesters, and added a summer class and an online Winterim course. That, plus a professor who was willing to let me use an incomplete on a self-guided course the last semester to finish, meant I did it.

(Disclosure. B- in foreign relations. I couldn’t get past how much dealing with nations felt like refereeing children and I’m afraid it showed when writing my exams.)

The reason I share my story is because it worked. An adult housewife packed a boatload of credits into two years and has a framed degree in Political Science on her wall. It was a lifelong goal. And if I did it, I have to say there’s a really good chance the tools for adult success are already out there. I used online classes. I had access to evening classes. Do we really need to reinvent the wheel, or is there a chance this is labeling what we already have as innovation just to get the press release?

Equally frustrating is finding that no one really knows what the plan includes or when it will start. (Read Joe Tarr for another perspective. And I am also amused that one reporter laments the lack of training for certain jobs in our state but never lists those jobs and then later refers to the want for skilled welders in his piece on higher education. But then by the time I finish with this post I will have likely meandered to an equal degree.)

For the more traditional just-out-of-high-school or current high school student, the Wisconsin system offers a number of options. Now I’ll offer quick disclaimer – I’m not an expert – but I have shuffled a few kids through the experience. I’ll confess, not one of three took the same approach.

First, for an active learner, or even a student who just wants to get out of a planned education system as quickly as possible, Wisconsin has had something called Youth Options for ages. While this program was ideally crafted for a student to use who had maxed out of the current high school curriculum, I’ve watched a couple of students end high school with two years of college on a transcript all at the local school district’s expense. I even saw a school board pay for a young woman’s dance class. (Do not confuse this acknowledgement with my being pleased about that decision.) Also beneficial, and widely used, is the AP – Advanced Placement – classes and testing in high school. Two of mine had at least a semester on paper when they left high school for the price of about $80 a test. Finally, from what I understand (UWM, Madison, so I would assume it stretches over the UW system) testing in competancy and then completing one higher class in a foreign language lets one have the credits from all of the classes necessary to get there posted retroactively. That generally saves about six credits from the college bill.

The two year UW colleges also offer a great value in their guaranteed transfer programs. I’ve know three students to use this approach, and they saved a lot of money from that decision. A traditional college experience is about as common as a non-traditional approach these days. It really pays for students to consider the options their freshman year in high school and plan ahead. That doesn’t mean hit it hard or scare a student into an academic hell, but it does suggest high school counselors need to do more than frighten a student into more science or they won’t get into college. (Yes, I have a story, but you will be spared.)

Ok, why am I babbling on about this? College is really expensive. Stupidly expensive. Unreasonably expensive. We’ve been talking about it on Fairly Conservative for years. With a little planning even the average high school student can finish a four year degree in only two after high school.

(And with that I’ll confess I’m not sure how I feel about it all. Perhaps to a fault, I’ve warned my children over the years that one is expected to be an adult for a long time once you hit a certain age. If we are teaching college in high school and high school in middle school, does a kid get enough time to play?)

Back to the point: if you want a college degree, there is in my experience no better location than the state of Wisconsin, no matter your age, to make that happen. It can be done frugally. It can be done outside of a traditional approach. And you don’t have to wait around for the politicians to change anything. It’s there for you now.


  1. Aha, I wondered when somone would figure out that the UW — well, most campuses, just not Madison — already are doing everything that was in the “new and improved UW!” news release from Walker.

    Yes, I said immediately to Spouse Gee that this was just packaging and marketing, not a new product.

    There is cause for worry, though, if this is to market the product to tap new consumers for college degrees who ought not go to online courses and the like. We have a lot of years of a lot of experience and studies now that show what any UW online instructor knows: Students who lack self-discipine (or won’t even buy a book, emailing to complain about them from their costly IPhones) in the classroom will earn yet another F in an online course. Students who need remedial writing but have relied on charm will sink like Titanics in online courses, in which all communication is written. Etc. And not only ought some students not study online but also some courses ought not be offered online. Yes, you had to come to campus at some point.

    This ought not be an ill-thought-out ploy for publicity that puts students further in debt and farther from degrees, having to retake those F courses again. Some already do so, sadly, as we know because the UW has been offering all of these options for eons. So I had to wonder from which story were we being distracted that day?

    (But, of course, the F’s were the professors’ fault.)

  2. I liked the part where you were sort of praising me better. 🙂

    Seriously, though, sometimes online courses work. But, I love the classic Socratic methods for learning. I would have stunk up an entirely online curriculum in a big way.

  3. To be clear, as I apparently was not:

    Definitely, yes, sometimes — with some students — some online courses work, wonderfully well. I observed my children taking online college courses, and owing to their success (in most cases — one teacher was not up to it), I started teaching them.

    Also, my regrets if I failed to clearly praise you for this piece. I meant it when I said that, at last, someone reported — and reported well, with all of the links and the like — that all of this is not new. Thus, it was not news. So I also am waiting to see whether there will be something newsy in more information on it, as you also pointed out that there does not seem to be any more as yet.

    I also will say, by the way, that it is a fine thing to improve the packaging — the ease for potential students to find the information on all of these options in one place, if they really cannot navigate the websites with all of the information already — and the marketing of what already is in place, if that turns out to be all there is to it.

    But marketing costs money. So does adding and maintaining more websites or even more links. I also noted, as no doubt did you, no funding in the news release from Walker. If there is no funding for this, it ought not come from the UW budgets already cut and cut and cut again. It also ought not come from students, as that would mean another factor for tuition hikes. So . . . perhaps it ought to come from businesses that, per what Walker said in the news release, wanted this? But that would be . . . another tax. Hmmm.

  4. Thanks for explaining. I’ll spend my weekend content that I actually impressed one person. 🙂

  5. Randy in Richmond says:

    When students are not required to pay tuition our national higher learning system will become what is already a travesty in California’s budgetary process. Let the students pay but at what has to be a lower rate for their on-line tuition. Remember when VCR’s first came out and the movie producer’s passed around petitions that the VCR tape would be their undoing? There will always be a prominent place for “traditional” higher learning and the internet option can become a great supplement.

  6. Randy, fyi, online courses cost more — in tuition and in cost to campuses, if for the same credits and with the same faculty or other instructors and all else the same. Online courses carry an additional fee in the UW (and most campuses) for the high costs of infrastructure, maintenance, hardware (i.e., servers and such) replacements, software licensing, etc., as well as IT staffing for two or more shifts. IT departments have become the biggest departments by far on campuses. Libraries and some other student services have had to add shifts, too.

    This is in part because so many courses now, even if taught only in classrooms or “hybrids” (combined, usually a class a week on campus and the rest online) include IT components aka “CMS” or “LMS” (course management or learning management) systems.

    Btw, these constantly increasing and ever more costly IT needs are one of the major reasons — along with other costs for which all of us have seen inflation, i.e., heat, electricity, water, etc. — why tuition has increased in the UW, even though faculty and other workers (except for top administrators who keep getting boosts) have had not raises in more than half a decade now.

    So all students are picking up some of the costs, but the budgeting in place for years now has online (only) students picking up more of the costs. To reverse that, the need will be either for more tuition hikes for the other students to subsidize online students or . . . see above about where is the funding for this? And, of course, for more administrators for it, such as the one that Walker announced in his news release.

    That is, if this is to be for online variants of the for-credit, for-a-college-degree courses, accredited and all that. For noncredit courses, for certifications and such sorts of offerings, that program also already has been in place for well more than a century in Wisconsin: the UW Extension.