Going the Distance

Written by Ryan Mulrooney

Photography by Aida Ebrahimi

Is there a way to eliminate the distance and differences between citizens of Wisconsin? One possible answer could be engaging Wisconsinites in our state’s higher education debate. According to Katherine Cramer, Director of the Morgridge Center for Public Service, “If we really believe in serving people beyond the borders of our campus, we need to pay attention to the perspectives of people in those communities” (Cramer, 4). Inspired by Cramer’s work, a team of seven student researchers gathered to enrich and inform the debate of higher education in Wisconsin. Mentored by two researchers from the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions, Bailey Smolarek and Matthew Wolfgram, these student researchers were educated on higher education literature, ethical research principles, and went the distance into their communities to conduct interviews on what Wisconsinites view as the aims of higher education in our state.

Student researchers – Micayla Darrow, Cassandra Duernberger, Cassidy Hartzog, Kathryn Hendrickson Gagen, Ryan Mulrooney, David Singer, and Isabella Vang – acquired a sample of Wisconsinites ranging in ages from 20 to 87 that generally reflected the state’s racial demographic and socioeconomic background. This project, Documenting the Aims of Higher Education in Wisconsin, had three main questions emerge out of team discussions and the recent politicization of higher education: 1) What do Wisconsinites see as the aims of higher education in the state?; 2) How do participants’ lived experiences, social background, and educational history influence their view of higher education in the state?; 3) How are the aims of higher education politically positioned and communicated? Over the course of this past summer and fall, the researchers conducted interviews, wrote analytical memos, and collectively created findings.

These nuanced responses allowed the team of researchers to create six aims of higher education: community engagement, employment, the development of interpersonal and critical thinking skills, personal growth and enrichment, social mobility, and the Wisconsin Idea. Within the higher education debate, higher education is often linked to employment; however, community engagement was the most widely discussed aim of higher education. It’s the ability to gain knowledge to become informed citizens, participate in democracy, and give back to one’s community. Although not to dismiss the other valuable aims of Wisconsin’s higher education, the findings once again demonstrated why community involvement is so important to the higher education debate, in conjunction with Cramer’s quote.

Although a value for higher education in Wisconsin was expressed by many, there were several barriers that distanced certain populations and individuals from this opportunity. 70% of participants mentioned the funding and affordability of higher education, whether it personal challenges or ones of their family and friends. Other barriers included inadequate pre-college and/or academic advising, the lack of support for students of color and first-generation students, and the lack of mental health and disability support services.

So, where do we go from here? This unique undergraduate-level, student-led research shows a more eclectic vision of the aims of higher education than the usual two-sided politically positioned debate. Similar to the research members’ curiosity, passion, pride, and determination throughout this project, administrators and policymakers should reflect on the opinions and barriers expressed by the participants and increase outreach to Wisconsin communities about the inner workings and funding of our public universities. Overall, this research created a thread that connected all the participants. Whether the team engaged with the accountant from Green Bay, WI, the stay-at-home Dad from Madison, WI, or the technical school student from Fennimore, WI, all participants eliminated their distance and differences by expressing genuine care and concern for our state’s higher education system. That is truly the one of the most valuable takeaways from this project, and hopefully our state leaders will go the distance to have similar discussions.


Cramer, Katherine. “The Distance from Public Institutions of Higher Ed.” Wiscape, Mar. 2012, p. 4. Accessed 23 Jan. 2018.