Living in a Changing Work World Part Three: Investing in Education

“While I am very conservative regarding government spending, I do believe in spending for education,” the CEO of an Eau Claire company wrote me. He continues “I also believe more should be spent for technical college programs.”

He runs a “very successful and sizeable” business and contributing to his success is the educated employees coming from the Chippewa Valley Technical College, UW Eau Claire and UW Stout.

“Our success is in a large part due to the people we employ and the job skills they bring to each of our companies,” the CEO of another Eau Claire-based manufacturer wrote. His locally owned family of companies generates products and services for the global market. He continues, “The shortage of skilled workers…poses a significant challenge for us.”

In the past two weeks, nearly three dozen business leaders from Neillsville to Medford, River Falls to Eau Claire sent me letters requesting increased funding for higher education as an investment in our future.

Leaders in the construction trades, hospital and medical center administrators, managers of energy companies, a Chief of Police, and the CEOs of local manufacturing, high tech, engineering companies, auto body shops, ag-related businesses have all written urging  my support for additional state investment in technical colleges and universities.

State funding for technical colleges has been declining over the past several years. According to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, since 1996-97 state aid has declined from 17% to 11% of total technical college system dollars. The property tax is still the largest source of revenue with nearly half of the technical college budget coming from property tax-payers.

The UW system fares only a bit better.

The state provides almost 24% of the total UW System budget.  But the state’s investment in higher education has been declining. To fill in the funding gap, UW tuition has been rising.  According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, over the most recent 10-year period, funding from tuition grew by more than 127%.

Wisconsin ranks 34th among all states in per person state spending for higher education.

Yet the letters from businesses reminded me of the tremendous return on investment our higher education system provides to our state.

According to the Midwest Higher Education Compact, the median salary of a college graduate in Wisconsin is $17,000 more a year than the median salary for a high school graduate.

In our region, Wisconsin has the lowest percentage of 18-24 year olds enrolled in college.

Just ten years ago Minnesota and Wisconsin had the same percent of the population holding a degree. Now 32% of Minnesota’s working age population has a four year degree and only 25% of Wisconsin’s population can claim the same.

Minnesota’s average income per person is $38,849; Wisconsin’s average is $34,405. Boosting our average income per person to Minnesota levels would bring another $25 billion into the pockets of Wisconsinites.

Businesses are concerned about an educated workforce. Baby boomers are retiring, many non-English speakers are entering the workforce and younger workers are more likely to be deficient in writing, computer and math skills.

Meeting these challenges means investing in an educated workforce. Wisconsin’s Technical Colleges and our universities are working hard to prepare our workforce for Twenty First Century jobs, but they need our support. Without the state’s investment in higher education, Wisconsin cannot compete in the global market place.

The time to act is now. Western Wisconsin business leaders understand this.

Solutions are not easy. The state faces serious financial difficulties. New resources are difficult to find. But not investing in higher education in not an option.


State Senator Kathleen Vinehout serves the 31st Senate District. She can be contacted at  Senator Kathleen Vinehout State Capitol P.O. Box 7882 Madison, Wisconsin 53707-7882 or 877-763-6636 (toll free) or email at Sen.Vinehout@legis.wisconsin.gov