When I left my parents’ farm in Elroy to attend UW-Madison, we were so poor that I carried my things in a paper bag instead of a suitcase. I went on to earn a law degree, served in the Legislative Assembly, was elected to four terms as governor, ran the US Department of Health and Human Services as secretary and became president of the University of Wisconsin system.

It has been an honor to serve as President of the UW System for the past 20 months, and in my final weeks in office, I visited our 13 universities, met with community and business leaders, faculty and staff, and students. I wanted to thank our employees and students for their resilience during the pandemic, highlight our accomplishments, and share some final thoughts on higher education in our state.

First of all, it’s time to stop apologizing for the UW and start bragging about it. The UW system is Wisconsin’s greatest asset other than its people. We need to let everyone know what great student value we have here, perhaps with a robust marketing campaign, because the returns to our state when our UW is successful are enormous.

I want our state’s youth and their parents to hear how vitally important a college education is to their individual growth, to our Wisconsin communities, and to the economic health of our state. To become the engineers, doctors, teachers, writers, data scientists and ecologists of tomorrow, you need a college degree. And our universities are key to providing critical thinking skills that help develop citizens in an information-rich society. A college degree is more important than ever.

Although the UW system remains critical, we face challenges. So here are a few things I want everyone to think about:

A blue ribbon commission should be created to study the future of public higher education in our state. The Wisconsin Technical College System has been a great partner, but demographic, financial, and other challenges force us to look for ways to collaborate and innovate.

We must also avoid “regionalizing” our universities, which would reduce student enrollment and access, but we must continue to focus on operational efficiency here at UW System.

Being on a UW campus and taking in-person classes is an essential part of the higher education experience. We must continue to support residential college because it is the kind of education our students deserve and parents expect. But we also need to find ways to better provide college credit online, including to the estimated 815,000 Wisconsin residents who have college credit but no degree. We have proven that we deliver quality education online, but we need to do more or we will fall further behind.

We need to highlight the unique qualities that make our universities special. This does not mean that we eliminate dozens of majors. But that could mean identifying a few great programs and departments on each campus and expanding them by adding faculty and resources and recruiting more students. A more targeted specialization will enhance our universities and make them more attractive.

The past 20 months have been a whirlwind of activity and challenge, but I have now seen firsthand the extraordinary opportunity our 13 universities provide for students and families across Wisconsin. Let’s keep it that way and make it even better.

The University of Wisconsin system serves approximately 165,000 students. Awarding nearly 37,000 degrees annually, the UW system is Wisconsin’s talent pool, positioning graduates to increase their earning power, contribute to their communities, and make Wisconsin a better place to live. Nearly 90% of graduates from the state’s UW system remain in Wisconsin for five years after graduation — with a median salary of more than $66,000. The UW system offers a 23:1 return on investment for the state. Universities in the UW system also contribute to the richness of Wisconsin’s culture and economy with groundbreaking research, new businesses and patents, and boundless creative intellectual energy.