A Roth Challenge: rethinking education bottom to top

As Sen. Roger Roth pursues reorganization of the University of Wisconsin System, he has a chance to put Wisconsin in the vanguard for getting every invaluable child off to a successful life and career.

The temptation over the next decade is to simply deal with declining enrollment across the system and the bricks and mortar rationalization that flows from those lower numbers of students. During four learning sessions in a tour across the state last spring Roth and his staff unearthed a troubling, but fairly obvious trend. The system lost about 15,000 students over the last decade and stands to lose another 15,000 in the next decade. That is due mainly to lower numbers of high school graduates in Wisconsin each spring.

Senator Roger Roth

Roth is chair of the Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges, so it is clearly in his portfolio to ask the bricks and mortar question: Does UWS need all 26 campuses, some of which are enrolling very small student bodies. Do we need technical colleges in more than half the state’s counties, some of which are in close proximity to UW campuses?

Roth has proposed dividing UWS into four regions, with UW Madison as a separate flagship entity. That structure would allow for consolidation of buildings, degrees and majors.

But that realignment would not move the state forward. Sen. Roth needs to find some original and innovative thinkers to shape K-12 and higher education across the state.

He knows that online education is a powerful and fast-growing tool that needs to be woven into the fabric of our education systems top to bottom.

He knows that high school graduates are arriving on college campuses with up to a year of advanced placement credits.

He knows that dual enrollment for K-12 students on UW and technical college campuses is increasingly popular.

Those trends can’t be stopped. He needs to integrate that reality into his higher education strategy.

There are lessons to be learned from the increasing number of students who are being home-schooled, thanks in part to online access.

Given this sea of change, where does Wisconsin go next?

Essentially, Roth has embarked on a strategic planning process. And anyone who does strategic planning knows that it has to revolve around the needs of the customer. The customer in this case is the student.

Because that’s true, and given the new tools available, could we not develop a system that customizes education for every child? No two kids are the same and each has a different appetite and aptitude for their pathways.

Should we not invest in counselors and mentors to figure out the highest and best path for each kid? (The legislature sharply reduced funds in its last budget for those resources.)

For some, it might mean a youth apprenticeship in a particular field, such as auto mechanics or health care.

For others, educational paths will differ depending on their career choices from two-year degrees to four-year degrees, graduate degrees or certificates of competency and licenses in a wide range of skills.

It could mean a stint of public service, including the armed forces, in return for free or lower tuition. It should mean heavy mentorship through school and beyond in a particular discipline. We know that a personal relationship with adults along a career path can be pivotal for success.

It may seem expensive to give so much attention to each child, but I would argue that it is far more expensive to society to deal with youths that don’t have a clear path forward and get into all kinds of dead ends and trouble. I would also argue that getting the optimal contributions from every valuable youngster is a loss we can’t afford.

Sen. Roth has the opportunity to not only deal with the bricks and mortar component of education in Wisconsin, but also to rethink the whole way we go about the business of education. His committee could be the most important in the legislature.

He is right in calling for a blue ribbon commission to help him craft the state’s forward looking educational strategy.

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