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Legislators should draw line between higher education-prosperous economy

By Julie Furst-Bowe

One of the major efforts for those of us who work in higher education in early 2009 will be to ensure that legislators and the public draw the connection between an adequately funded University of Wisconsin System and the health of our state’s economy.

Speaking for UW-Stout, our unique mission within the UW System includes a specific charge to offer a distinctive array of programs “leading to professional careers focused on the needs of society.” Our relatively small number of undergraduate programs, 34, is very successful in meeting the demands of our mission. Every year, our Career Services office surveys our graduates one year after they leave campus, and every year 95 percent or more of them are employed or continuing their education; three-quarters of those recent graduates usually are working in their field of study.

We work hard at UW-Stout to ensure that we stay current with the needs of employers, both in the Chippewa Valley and across the state of Wisconsin. We use advisory committees for each of our programs that bring in executives who work in business and industry to help us adjust our curriculum to meet the new demands of that particular field.

I also work with others on campus and in the private sector to alter our academic plan to ensure that we continue to offer students majors that will lead to success in finding rewarding careers.

For example, employers in the Chippewa Valley and elsewhere indicated they were having difficulty finding engineers to work in the plastics and computer industries, two sectors that are vitally important to the economy of western Wisconsin. We took those needs to the UW System Board of Regents this summer, and we received approval to add plastics engineering and computer engineering majors to our program array.

We have other new majors on the drawing board: bachelors of science degrees in sustainable management, supply chain management, applied social science, computer game design and development, property management and cognitive science. These new majors will fill pressing needs for professional workers in the so-called “knowledge-based economy.”

But we cannot proceed with the planning and implementation of these new majors, or work on increasing the enrollment in the programs we now offer, unless the state of Wisconsin provides us with adequate resources--either through tax dollars or tuition.

We depend on Gov. Jim Doyle and the Legislature for our funding, which is why it is worrisome to read about the plans legislators from across the Chippewa Valley have to improve the prospects for business and industry without bringing UW-Stout, UW-Eau Claire, UW-River Falls or the Wisconsin Technical College System into the conversation.

Simply put: The economy will remain in the doldrums unless and until we increase the number of workers in Wisconsin who have at least a bachelor’s degree. The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education recently reported that in 2006, 27 percent of Wisconsin residents ages 25-64 had a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to the national average of 29 percent. Minnesota’s percentage stood at 33 percent in 2006, the study showed.

Gov. Doyle, to his credit, has said that education, including the UW System, will remain a top priority in his 2009-11 state budget proposal and that he would “do everything I possibly can” to protect the state’s educational system from devastating cuts to close the estimated $5.4 billion budget deficit.

Those of us at UW-Stout hope that our legislative delegation and its constituents in western Wisconsin also buys into the governor’s philosophy and realizes that an increased investment in higher education will lead directly to a brighter economy in Wisconsin.

-- Julie Furst-Bowe is provost and vice chancellor for academic and student affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Stout

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