Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Wisconsin Tech Council- "Stop cutting the UW and Tech Colleges"

I’ve been waiting for certain business groups to start stepping in on the future of the University of Wisconsin System, as the defunding and anti-academic actions from Governor Walker and his Wisconsin GOP allies are causing damage to Wisconsin’s image and ability to cultivate talent. To their credit, the Wisconsin Technology Council stepped up to the plate, and are getting headlines today that read “Cutting UW, tech college funding again would hurt economy.”

That finding was part of a 28-page report the Tech Council made on the future of higher education in Wisconsin, and the headline seems to be drawn from this part of the paper’s conclusion.
It is important to recognize that only three states out of 50 are spending as much on higher education per student today as they did before the Great Recession, which means cuts in higher education have been a national trend. Within that context, however, it’s important to understand where efficiency ends and competitive advantage is threatened. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Wisconsin spent 16.5 percent less in inflation-adjusted terms in 2008 through 2015. That decline in real spending suggests further cuts would harm access, affect overall quality and erode economic competitiveness.

• Does it make sense for state government to provide just 20 percent of the UW System’s total budget but to exercise a much higher degree of control over its tuition, capital projects, personnel decisions and more? Further, do current administrative transfer practices between the state and the UW System contribute to a lack of transparency about true costs of operation?
I'll answer that second one. No, it makes no sense that these dingbats demand tighter controls on something they fund less and less of. But that's how authoritarian goose-steppers roll.

From those two main points, I want to go into detail on the 3 main recommendations that the Tech Council is making, and then riff off of them for a bit.

1. In making funding and programming choices, policymakers should compare UW-Madison with its national peers (the nation’s top 25 research universities as defined by the National Science Foundation) and UW-Milwaukee with its peers (those 20 institutions in major metropolitan areas that aren’t “flagships” but which offer doctoral level work and have an urban mission).
This would indicate that the Tech Council wants basically a three-tier system for supporting the UW System

3.All other 4-year UW campuses (aka “comprehensives”)

I think there’s a lot of sense to this, as the research-and-Med School flagship in Madison and a UWM that has increasingly housed research-based business incubators are definitely going in a different direction than the other schools, and perhaps they should be funded differently. The Tech Council recommends having dedicated state funding for research at Madison and Milwaukee, and asks that researchers be freed up from teaching loads in order to use their time more wisely, and possibly use the discoveries to enhance the teaching side at a later point.

From a policy side, I’d argue that this also leans toward giving a larger proportion of “regular instructional” state aid to the comprehensive UW System schools and away from Madison and Milwaukee. Those other 11 campuses will not have as much research funding, enrollment size or donor base that UWM or Madison will, and will rely more on state aid to make up the difference. As a Madison grad, I have no problem with that trade.
2. Examine ways to speed time to graduation, which varies greatly within the UW System; consider ways to improve portability of credits within institutions; and accelerate programs that allow high-school students to get a “head start” on college through advanced placement courses and similar strategies. Wisconsin’s private colleges and universities offer a ready example. Both the UW and Wisconsin’s private nonprofit colleges and universities have instituted three-year degree programs, flexible degrees which give credit for prior learning and blend on-line and face-to-face learning, and encourage AP and Course and Youth Option programs. The real challenge is that only a few take advantage of these opportunities – again, perhaps, because funding of Wisconsin Grants is so low that students have to work so much that it lengthens their time to degree.
I’m not a huge fan of gimmicks like UW's new “Flex Option” degree, mostly because I think face-to-face exchange with peers and instructors is a key part of undergraduate education, and separates UW from a diploma mill. But the example of the private schools using accelerated degree programs makes some sense to me, and making it easier to transfer credits from high school and other colleges is something that should be automatic- how is either the student or the resource-starved university helped when the credits don’t transfer?

Also note the call for more Wisconsin Grants, to lessen the chances of students having to take extra time to graduate because they can’t go full-time. The underfunding of Wisconsin grants for higher education came up a couple of years ago, as the LFB reported in July 2014 that nearly 41,000 Wisconsin students couldn’t get the grants because the state hadn’t set aside enough funding for them. In the 2015-17 budget, $2.6 million was added to grants for technical education (Item 4 in this summary), but that is estimated to reach less than 1,200 of those students in need of aid. Later bills as part of Gov Walker’s “Higher Ed Affordability” package added another $950,000 for grants, but that falls far short of meeting the needs that the Tech Council and the LFB have shown

It seems that the Tech Council is calling for higher tuition but also higher financial aid to be available from the state to allow students to pay that tuition. They bemoan the underfunding of Wisconsin grants in the report, and also include a chart which compares in-state tuition and fees at UW schools compared to public universities in other Big Ten states. It shows Wisconsin’s average in-state tuition of $8,781 in 2014-15 was lower than 5 of our 6 Midwestern peers (only Iowa is lower), and it was more than 30% lower than public universities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In addition, the Tech Council said Wisconsinites get a relatively good deal for their tuition dollars, even with our lower cost-of-living compared to other places.

Tuition and fees as % of median household income, Big 10 states 2013-14
Mich 23.8%
Penn 23.7%
Ill. 22.0%
Ohio 21.4%
N.J. 20.6%
Ind. 17.7%
Minn 17.2%
U.S. 16.6%
Wis. 15.8%
Iowa 14.3%
Neb. 13.6%
Mary 13.0%

To give a bit of perspective, if Wisconsin raised that ratio to 17.5% (between Indiana and Minnesota), that would mean an in-state increase of around $930 (just over 10.6%). So if that $930 per-student increase was spread across all 151,000 Full-Time Equivalent students for this year, it would translate into $140 million in added revenue a year- enough to make up for the cuts Gov Walker and the WisGOP Legislature imposed on the UW System in the 2015-17 budget. (Yes, I know some UW students come from out-of-state. I’m assuming that $930 increase would apply to them too. If you want to change it so the Coasties pay a bit more and the Sconnies pay less and the average is $930, I won’t argue with it).

Going to a higher-tuition, higher-aid model seems like a good idea on its face, but good luck getting an increase for Higher Ed Assistance from Governor Dropout, who seems to be more than content to pose about freezing in-state tuition without a care for how that lack of resources restricts UW quality and the range of classes available for students. This is especially true given that it seems we might well have a revenue shortfall and budget deficit for not only this Fiscal Year, but for the 2017-19 budget as well.

3. The UW Board of Regents, working with its Tenure Policy workforce and responding to legislative initiatives, has approved policies that reflect best tenure policy practices nationally as well as within the UW System. Clear tenure policies help attract talent in a competitive industry. In a world with changing economic, social and political needs, the Regents and the UW System should monitor how tenure may continue to evolve over time while protecting core principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression.
WHOA! Gonna have to disagree with you on that one. The recent UW tenure changes certainly have not protected academic freedom and freedom of expression. That is clear from the attitudes exhibited in Ray Cross’s emails and in statements from various Walker-appointed Regents at the meeting in April when these changes were passed into law. These anti-faculty types clearly want to be the ones who decide which majors have “value” and which don’t, and manipulate UW resources and curriculum accordingly. That doesn’t sound much like a “best practice” or “academic freedom” to me. But it’s also not a surprising point of view from a business-based organization, who ultimately drill down everything in life to dollars and cents.

See, the problem with the recent moves and statements by Walker, other WisGOP hacks, the Walker-appointed Regents and President Cross is not only the weakening of tenure (bad enough), but also that they are pressing their thumb down on the university’s mission, and denigrating the value of highly-educated workers that deliver a quality product of human capital. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see the Kochs or the Bradleys (Hi, Regent Michael Grebe!) or WMC deciding that certain disciplines (cough-CLIMATE SCIENCE-cough) just don’t fit into their plans, and they use the underfunded status of the UW System to weed out things they don’t like in favor of imposing their “facts” into the classroom.

I would hope the Tech Council isn’t being naïve on where the weakening of tenure could lead to, and instead could demand that the Legislature and the Kochs and other outside force BUTT OUT of micromanaging the UW System curriculum, and instead be a willing partner in keeping the UW System strong and respected.

But perhaps some of this was written before the callous, anti-academic attitude of Walker and his allies was thrown out in the open this month. Either way, the Tech Council should clarify what they mean “how tenure may continue to evolve”, and should make sure they give the benefit of the doubt to the instructors and researchers that have spent tens of thousands of dollars to get the Master’s and Doctoral level qualifications that allow them to take research to the next level. There is also a mention of closing and consolidating certain campuses, and I’d be interested in finding out just which UW schools the Tech Council had in mind.

In all, it’s an intriguing group of thoughts, and largely supportive of an institution that deserves to be supported. It’s a good addition to what needs to be a wider-ranging in-depth conversation, and a whole lot more worthwhile than the absurd “divide and conquer” crap that’s been floated out there by the Wisconsin GOP over the last few weeks. Let's see if any further talk comes from it.

1 comment:

  1. Glad I got to study climate science ("COUGH!") with some of the discipline's finest minds at UW-Mad before I would have had my hand slapped. Whew!