Bad Boy Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, fresh from taking on collective bargaining and triumphant after winning the recall election, is headed for more controversy, more upheaval and more angry squeals as he prepares to go after yet another sacred cow. His next mission is to take on Wisconsin’s higher education system. On June 19, Walker and officials from the University of Wisconsin announced a “revolutionary” flexible degree program. From the press release:
The unique self-paced, competency-based model will allow students to start classes anytime and earn credit for what they already know. Students will be able to demonstrate college-level competencies based on material they already learned in school, on the job, or on their own, as soon as they can prove that they know it. By taking advantage of this high quality, flexibility model, and by utilizing a variety of resources to help pay for their education, students will have new tools to accelerate their careers. Working together, the UW System, the State of Wisconsin, and other partners can make a high-quality UW college degree significantly more affordable and accessible to substantially more people.
It is one thing to proclaim an ideal, and something else to develop a system that actually works, but the language at least points toward exactly the kind of flexible programs Via Meadia and others have been advocating.
Change has to come. After World War Two the United States built its modern university system by extending a model that was originally intended to groom the sons of a social elite to succeed their fathers as government and business leaders to manage the preparation of tens of millions of people for the business of life.
The template doesn’t work in many cases, and the result increasingly is that training and job preparation takes too long and costs too much. The problem isn’t that America has “too much” education. The problem is that a 21st century society needs to be able to teach more skills to more people at a much lower cost and in much less time than our 20th century institutions can manage. It’s really that simple. The most urgent business of a state university system at this point must be to reform and improve the kind of education (in many cases, training) that can enable the state’s citizens of any and every age to acquire skills and prepare themselves to flourish in a rapidly changing economy.
Those who like myself are the products of the traditional elite educational system are naturally and properly concerned about the future of liberal as opposed to utilitarian education as this transformation takes place. But even we have to recognize that the first priority of state governments has to be to get the utilitarian stuff right.
Scott Walker will not be the last state governor to try his hand at education reform. It will be a bumpy road, and there will be failures and lessons learned. But through efforts like this one, through borrowing best practice from other states and countries and through trying new ideas in many states and many institutions, public and private, non-profit and for-profit, we will eventually develop an educational system that better serves the people than the one we have now.
Last month saw a crisis erupt at the University of Virginia. Now we have some radical proposals surfacing in Wisconsin. There will be more. The conflict between society’s need for more education and the high costs of the system we’ve built is intensifying. The fiscal squeeze at every level of government makes it impossible to manage the problem simply by shoveling more money into a dysfunctional system. Higher education in the United States is headed towards the biggest and most revolutionary upheaval since the birth of the mass modern university system at the end of World War Two.