By Christopher Dade
The state of Wisconsin faces two distinct but interwoven challenges: a decades-long “brain drain” of the state’s highly educated population and growing political polarization that mirrors the geographic sorting of Wisconsinites based on educational attainment. While the brightest Wisconsonites who stay often have obtained their education from the state’s flagship and land-grant university—UW-Madison—they often do not return back across the state; instead much of the education and training obtained in Madison stays in Madison. These headwinds not only threaten to place a drag on the state’s economic growth but have also fuelled a long-simmering crisis of confidence among the public in Wisconsin’s land-grant universities and their role in society.
When it comes to educating America, the Midwest punches above its weight. While the Midwest contains just 31% of the U.S. population, public universities in the region award 1/3 of all higher education degrees (Austin). The perception in many Midwestern states, including Wisconsin, however, is that many of those degree earners do not stay. 62% of Wisconsinites feel that, “Wisconsin’s brightest college graduates are leaving their home state for opportunities outside Wisconsin” (Zhang 12). This perception is not incorrect. A 2019 report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum found that Wisconsin lost the most college graduates of any state in 1990, 2000, and 2010 and remains in the top 10. A 2019 study by the Joint Economic Committee (JEC) of Congress found that, “that most states in the Rust Belt [Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin]… are losing their educated residents.” States, including Wisconsin, that fail to retain their highly educated citizens are at risk of facing economic stagnation. The JEC found Wisconsin had both high net brain drain—the people leaving are more highly educated than the people moving in— and high gross brain drain—the native Wisconsinites who leave are more highly educated than the native Wisconsinites who stay. Not only is Wisconsin losing its mostly highly educated population, but a notable portion of that is the loss of “home-grown” talent. This brain drain not only drags down the economic growth of the entire state, but it also leads to crumbling civic institutions as towns are hollowed out of economic and personal capital.
Wisconsin’s brain drain compounds the polarization, politically and geographically, of the state. As the JEC 2019 report argues, “As communities become more homogeneous, distrust and misunderstanding of those with alternative views increases. The person holding a conflicting viewpoint, rather than being a neighbor, is a distant other”. People generally are more likely to live and associate with those they agree with (Golman et al.), and partisan geographic sorting is now so extensive that almost all Americans now live in neighborhoods, cities, and communities where they are unlikely to encounter a voter from the opposite party (Brown and Enos). This has produced a trend of polarization in American society where urban areas are growing more liberal as rural areas grow more conservative (Badger). This polarization is not limited to partisan identity. In Wisconsin, those with college degrees are not only more likely to live in cities, but one specifically: Madison. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 48.6% of adults in Madison hold a bachelor’s degree—the only one of Wisconsin’s twelve metro areas above 40% and 17% higher than the state average (Stebins and Suneson). Historian Richard Hofstadter postulated that, as society became more technologically complex, resentment of expertise could easily take hold in a public that was increasingly reliant on experts, and over the past half-century, there has been a growing social divide between experts and the general public (Nichols). As the college-educated population of Wisconsin continues to concentrate in a few urban, increasingly liberal areas, ideological and educational cleavages threaten to combine and breed multi-layered perceptions of disconnect between disparate citizens.
These forces have already begun to open a chasm between public universities and the public. Over 20 years ago, the Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities recognized that the central challenge to these institutions was a perception among the public that they were “out of touch, out of date” and unresponsive (Kellogg Commission). These perceptions have persisted for decades. In 2009, a survey found that almost half of respondents felt that “your state’s public college and university system needs to be fundamentally overhauled” (Cramer 2016). Cramer found similar feelings among citizens of Wisconsin, specifically that the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) was seen as out of reach, especially for citizens in rural and small towns (Cramer Walsh 2012). It is imperative that citizens of the state of Wisconsin do not feel disconnected from their public universities.
This disconnection breeds resentment, which breeds further feelings of disconnect in a spiral that has already detrimentally affected land-grant institutions in the state, particularly the most prominent: UW-Madison. In the 2015-2017 budget, the state eliminated $250 million from the UW System (Savidge [April 2016]). While Governor Evers proposed a generous increase in the UW System budget for FY2022, most of his proposed budget has been declared dead on arrival by the state legislature, and it remains to be seen whether politicians value reinvesting in the university. This decline in state funding for the UW System indicates there is political viability to the belief UW-Madison, the most prominent land-grant institution in the state, is out of touch with Wisconsin and in need of major reform. In 2016, Former Governor Scott Walker proposed weakening tenure protections—a dramatic change in how universities would have operated—and also proposed replacing language in the UW System’s mission focused on pursuing truth and improving the human condition with an emphasis on meeting the state’s workforce needs (Savidge [March 2016]).
Budget cuts and calls for major reform have tempted many public universities to reimagine their mission, creating a “crucible moment” for higher education in America, according to the U.S. Department of Education (National Task Force on Civic Learning). Rather than educating students to be active participants in a democratic society, the US Department of Education identified a trend to educate students for the workforce rather than to prepare them for participation in democracy more broadly (Cramer). This trend only threatens to exacerbate the growing socio-geographic divides in this country. Work forkforce training can prepare students to be good employees, but it cannot prepare them to be good citizens. The strength of public universities is their ability to bring together otherwise disperater cohorts of students, expose them to a broader understanding of the diverse American experience, and bind them together with a common purpose to leverage their education for community and social good.
The State of Wisconsin should create a new Land-Grant Service Corps composed of recent graduates from the state’s land-grant institutions: UW-Madison, College of Menominee Nation, and Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College. Corps members would spend two years living in and serving local communities across the state, working on community-identified issue areas similar to AmeriCorps. Corps members would be eligible for student loan forbearance during their time of service and be compensated at the state minimum wage rate. Corps members would also be granted pre-admission in a Master’s degree program at one of Wisconsin’s land-grant institutions (e.g. Master of Public Health or Master of Public Policy) upon successful completion of service with a full tuition waiver. This program would require substantial financial investment and it is unlike the State of Wisconsin would be able or willing shoulder that burden alone. The state should see that government investment could be offset by bolstered revenues from stronger, healthier communities across the state, but some of the cost could be offset by getting buy-in from private companies and philanthropic groups who want to invest in home-grown human capital. Funding for the service corps could also be integrated into university capital campaigns, ensuring the state government, private entities, and Wisconsin’s land-grant institutions are all invested in the program’s success. While corps members will serve across the state of Wisconsin, special emphasis will be placed on Corps service among indigenous and minority communities in the state. Because land-grant universities were built on land originally belonging to indigenous communities, engaging with native populations is not only morally right but part of fulfilling the land-grant obligation. As Jamieson (2735) argues, these are “original stakeholders…with a special claim to engagement with and benefits from land-grant…universities.” The Wisconsin Idea is often articulated as the belief that the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state, and the Land-Grant Service Corps would ensure that is truly the case.
- Expanding UniverCity Year
One alternative would be to expand the UniverCity Year program currently run through UW-Madison. The program connects cities and counties in the state to resources at UW-Madison to address community-identified needs during a three-year partnership. After the community partner identifies a problem area, the UniverCity program facilitates a matching process between communities and faculty, who then integrate the project(s) into their coursework for upcoming semesters. Students and faculty work together to develop proposed solutions, which are then implemented by the community with support from the University. The program has already established a reputation for success in its first six years, and was recently acknowledged in a report by the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity as, “an example of the ‘Wisconsin Idea’ in action”(41). In his 2021–2022 budget proposal, Governor Evers called for a $600,000 investment to expand the program from 60 to 100 projects each year (Fanlund).
As the program is currently structured however, there are a number of drawbacks. The first is that the program is limited in geographic scope. Currently, the program lists active partnerships with 5 cities and 6 counties. The program is also run through UW-Madison, which, while well-resourced and replete with expert faculty and enthusiastic students, is not integrated in Indigenous communities like the other land-grant institutions in the state are; expansion of the program would not provide communities with the benefit of access to these additional experts and students. Additionally, participating communities, which are often rural and poorer, must commit $20,000-$30,000 to each issue-area they are interested in partnering on—a sizable investment that may dissuade many communities from participating. The largest challenge, however, to scaling is that, while the University provides resources at the outset, ultimately it is up to each community to implement solutions—long after students have finished their course and likely moved on to focus on the next semester’s coursework. There is no deep community integration as the program is currently structured.
- Civil Service as a General Degree Requirement
An alternative path would be to incorporate public service as a degree requirement for land-grant institutions in Wisconsin, perhaps as a for-credit course structured as an internship or work placement centered on community service. This would build civic engagement and service into the curriculum and facilitate more community integration than the UniverCity Year program. It would also refocus universities on preparing students to be active democratic citizens. By making civil service a general degree requirement, this would ensure a larger portion of the student population participated as well because it would not be an opt-in.
This model, however, has numerous potential pitfalls. First, a new general education requirement would also require curriculum redesign. This would take time and may garner faculty pushback. This would also be dependent on the competencies of each department or degree program to set up. This might create inequities in the quality of education and service. Second, a new degree requirement may increase time-to-degree, which would increase the cost of obtaining a degree (Long) and could negatively affect graduation rates (Shapiro et al.). Third, if completing a service requirement while enrolled full-time, students might be unlikely to seek opportunities geographically distant from the campus hub. Fourth, a large influx of participants from the start could make it harder to ensure every student has meaningful projects and quality service, which could undermine both the utility of the service to the community and the value students see in service—creating a subpar reputation for public service and the universities. Finally, while some students may very well be attracted to a university that builds public service into every degree, other students may not value that when considering colleges, especially if it leads to longer times-to-degree. This could serve to accelerate the brain drain from Wisconsin.
- A National Service Corps
While national service programs already exist, their acceptance rates are incredibly low e.g., 13% for AmeriCorps)(Kim), and politicians, including Hillary Clinton and Pete Buttigieg, have called for their expansion. In her 2016 presidential bid, Clinton called for a National Service Reserve, structured like the Armed forces reserves where young Americans would get basic training in skills necessary to be deployed for short assignments (weeks to months) to address short term needs like natural disasters or public health campaigns. While this structure would be responsive to acute crises (e.g., a viral pandemic and subsequent need for mass vaccinations), this type of program would be temporally limited and would not encourage participation of graduates whose degrees don’t obviously lend themselves to addressing acute emergencies. In his 2020 presidential campaign, Buttigieg proposed a compulsory national service program where every American served their country in some capacity for two years. While this would create longer-lasting service engagements between communities and corps members, it would also likely generate resistance among many who would see compulsory service as antithetical to the American ideal of self-determination. It also raises questions about constitutionally vis-à-vis the 13th Amendment’s ban on involuntary servitude (Dastagir). Both proposals would also send corps members across the United States, which while beneficial to American society broadly would not address the specific challenges facing Wisconsin and would not create the deep community ties that might serve to keep more graduates living and working in Wisconsin.
A Land-Grant Service Corps is not the only potential path to addressing the growing polarization and continued brain drain of Wisconsin, but it is the only one that presents a feasible mechanism to address both successfully.
A Land-Grant Public Service Corps promises myriad benefits to corps participants, Wisconsinites, and the state of Wisconsin. Corps members would have the opportunity to build deep community connections in the state, serve their fellow citizens— building the habit of putting the Wisconsin Idea into practice in their daily lives. Communities across the state would receive high-quality public service to address pressing community issues. Corps service would help directly address crumbling civic infrastructure and stagnating local economies by infusing human and economic capital into struggling communities. The Corps would also ensure highly educated graduates from the state’s land-grant universities would remain in the state for at least two years after graduation—slowing the brain drain. While previous studies have found just under 70% of graduates from UW-Madison stayed in Wisconsin (Zhang 16), the deep connections forged through service promise to retain more Wisconsin graduates for longer, and the scope of the service corps to graduates from all three land-grant institutions would extend that benefit to a larger and more diverse pool of graduates. After spending time serving the state, they may very well be more likely to stay after their service. This is especially true since many corps members will be serving at a point in their lives when they are building professional connections and making decisions about where they want to live, work, and build a life. If corps members opt to enroll in a Master’s program after their service, this would only further strengthen their ties to the state. Spending this critical time in Wisconsin forging deep community ties may stop or even reverse the state’s brain drain.
The Corps would also work to reverse social polarization trends by facilitating long-term social engagement between citizens with diverse education, geographic, and political backgrounds. Socio-geographic bifurcation exacerbates distrust, but strong community engagement between disparate citizens, facilitated through Corps service, would work to undo those suspicions. Corps service would also help Wisconsinites better understand the role land-grant universities can play in the state, and the Corps would serve as a feedback mechanism to ensure Wisconsin’s land-grant institutions are more in tune with the state’s needs and priorities.
Potential Challenges of a Land-Grant Service Corps
The proposed Service Corps, however, is not without its potential challenges. The costs to cover program administration and oversight, service incentives, and pay will be significant, and it may take some time to raise the funds necessary for a fully realized, state-wide service corps with the capacity to meet every community need. Funding for the service corps could also be integrated into university capital campaigns, ensuring the state government, private entities, and Wisconsin’s land-grant institutions are all invested in the program’s success. The program would also require the establishment of new administrative offices to oversee and run the program, which will take time to set up. It will take even longer to work out unforeseen inefficiencies in the program during the first few years corps members are in the field. Crucially, any unanticipated issues, especially with the quality of service, must be handled swiftly and effectively in the early years of the program to ensure a good reputation is established. A strong reputation will also be a bulwark for the program to protect its longevity through future periods of economic strife and state budget crunches. One perennial challenge will be that successful community engagement rests on corps members forgoing the tempting assumption that their main contribution will be knowledge, expertise, or answers to the challenges they are working on; only an openness to the possibility they will continue their education after graduation in the communities they are serving will result in effective service (Cramer). This is not a guarantee and will require strong orientation programming to prepare corps members for effective service.
If the Land-Grant Service Corps in Wisconsin is successful, the whole country stands to benefit. Wisconsin’s land-grant institutions, especially UW-Madison, have historically been viewed as the prototypical land-grant institution. As Theodore Roosevelt (1911, p. 144) once remarked, “In no other State in the Union has any university done the same work for the community that has been done in Wisconsin by the University of Wisconsin.” By providing a mechanism for graduates of Wisconsin’s land-grant institutions to put the Wisconsin Idea into practice and deliver tangible benefits to communities across the state, the Land-Grant Service Corps would continue to set that standard while ensuring the state’s other land-grant institutions are part of the effort to reconnect land-grant institutions with the state. This would provide a framework for other land-grant institutions to better engage with and serve their states, spreading community-rooted civil service across the country. This interpretation of the Wisconsin idea could flourish into a new American Ideal for higher education.
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