Biz Blog: At UW-Stout, a working model to prepare students for a career

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MADISON – Depending on how old you are and how long you’ve lived in Wisconsin, you’ve likely heard the dismissive phrase “When in doubt, Stout!” It’s an outdated reference to UW-Stout being a college choice of last resort.

Today, a more apt slogan is “There’s no doubt, it’s Stout!” as the university’s reputation for excellence in science, technology, engineering and math education grows along with its record in placing its graduates in jobs.

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The campus is also an example of why state investments in higher education can pay dividends to communities, the economy and taxpayers.

A recent visit to the Stout campus in downtown Menomonie, about halfway between Eau Claire and the Minnesota border, was a reminder of the ways in which college campuses intersect with regional businesses while providing students with a broad-based education.

With 48 undergraduate majors and about two-dozen graduate majors, Stout offers plenty of choices for students who attend classes there. Most settle into one of six career pathways – science and engineering, technology and communications, business and management, health and human services, arts and design, and education.

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Because there’s a blend of applied learning and liberal arts, students gets hands-on experience through internships and co-ops, industry projects, career conferences and campus facilities that feature twice as much laboratory space as traditional classroom space.

Examples include the UW-Stout Discovery Center, which features more than 50 industry projects, a digital fabrication workshop (or “fab lab”), a Manufacturing Outreach center, an affiliated business park and two of the largest student career conferences in the Midwest. Collectively, those two conferences are attended by 600 employers.

It all leads to students who graduate with a future: More than 97 percent of Stout’s undergraduate students are employed or pursuing graduate degrees within six months of their graduation, and more than three-quarters are employed in their field of study.

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That performance helps to explain why UW-Stout recorded the third largest enrollment increase in the UW System over the past decade, with a record enrollment of 9,535 in 2015 and an expected 2016 enrollment that appears on track.

Like most UW System campuses, however, Stout has troubles lurking below its seemingly productive surface.

Speaking to members of the Wisconsin Technology Council’s board of directors, Chancellor Bob Meyer noted that cuts in state support for the UW System have encouraged other colleges – mostly outside Wisconsin – to poach Stout faculty members who are worried about their future.

About 60 faculty and staff out of 1,300 employees of all descriptions have moved on, which Meyer warned will hurt Stout’s program quality if the cuts continue and talented faculty aren’t replaced.

Most recently, Gov. Scott Walker has said he wants to avoid further cuts to higher education and even restore some funding if there are measurable performance standards by which campuses can be judged.

Meyer said he’s fine with UW-Stout living up to such metrics because he’s confident the campus – which won a Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in 2001 – will continue to perform at a high level.

“We value assessing our performance in a variety of areas,” Meyer said. “Therefore, we welcome the governor’s call for basing additional funding for the UW System on performance metrics. We hope, however, that one of the metrics includes accurate measurements of the success that graduates have in the workplace after leaving campus.”

The Tech Council’s May report on the economic value of higher education to Wisconsin noted a number of examples of how public and private campuses benefit business by delivering talent, expertise and research partnerships. Without a doubt, a leading example for Wisconsin is UW-Stout.

Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.

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