Former Regent Pruitt is now at the Association of Governing Boardds of Colleges and Universities, and shakes his head at how politicians have increasingly stuck their noses into what the university is teaching, and tried to direct curriculum in a more corporate direction. At the same time, these legislators have hypocritically defunded those same schools.
Such policies compromise the historic promise of the Public Ivies: excellence and affordability, made possible by robust state support. Now, having made incompatible promises to slash funding and freeze tuition, politicians have set aside leadership and chosen the course of attack instead. In my state, they say the university is “out of touch,” its business model “broken.” The idea is to set up a partisan debate between largely Democratic defenders and largely Republican critics of the university.Of course, the ALEC legislators know that sifting and winnowing and the independent research involved in that is a threat to their voodoo economics and cronyism, which goes a long way toward explaining why they want to defund these Public Ivies and make the universities and the public more reliant on corporate support.
This process of partisan polarization surrounding universities has occurred in other states as well, from Virginia and North Carolina to Colorado and Arizona. In North Carolina, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory said the state should only subsidize university classes that would “get someone a job.” Elsewhere, more in-state students are losing their places to “full pay” students from other states or countries as universities desperately search for new revenue to offset budget cuts. A recent “discovery” of “billions” of dollars held in reserve at the University of Virginia stirred legislative criticism even though, as university officials tried to explain, most of these dollars came originally from sources other than state aid or tuition and, in an era of declining state support, a reserve fund is an essential component of sound fiscal management. (sound familiar, Wisconsinites??)
At a meeting not long ago between state legislative leaders and regents of the University of Wisconsin, for example, the Republican speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly, Robin Vos, told the regents we had a choice: be “cheerleaders for the university or advocates for the taxpayers.” The once-unifying “Wisconsin Idea” had held that to be one was to be the other. Meanwhile, in his 2015 budget, Republican Gov. Scott Walker simultaneously proposed slashing a record $350 million from the university while removing tenure protections for faculty.
Walker also proposed rewriting the institution’s mission statement — which focuses on “the search for truth” and improvement of the human condition, the traditional and noble role of the university — so that it focused on training workers instead.
In the face of criticism, Walker called these changes a “drafting error.” An error can reveal a great deal about one’s underlying values, and this one did. The governor and his allies spoke of “modernizing” the mission statement. But the search for truth and the sifting and winnowing of knowledge in its pursuit are not out of date. They are timeless and, indeed, they have never been more urgently relevant.
If that plan really works well, the void resulting from defunding can be filled with sources like Koch stink tanks to throw out competing “facts,” which confuses and/or misinforms the average voter, who doesn’t know much about these issues. Add in lower tax revenues resulting from giveaways to the rich and the corporate, meaning that budgets have to be cut (well, at least the budgets of programs ALEC legislators don’t like. Voucher schools seem never to be included in this), and you have the excuses ready-made for defunding these great public research institutions.
So what do these schools do as a result of policies that won’t give them added revenues from inside the state? They look to get students from outside the state, who pay higher tuition. The New York Times had an excellent, in-depth article that described this trend at a number of states to make up for the lack of tax dollars going to their schools. California has been at the center of this, as a state audit in March indicated that the UC system gave “favorable admissions treatment to thousands of higher-paying out-of-state and foreign students, to the detriment of Californians.” The UC System president (and former Governor of Arizona) admits that universities all have to make these kinds of choices these days.
Defending her university system after the audit’s release in March, President Janet Napolitano wrote that because of budget cuts, nearly every state in the nation had been forced to make a “Hobson’s choice, and they all have reached the same decision: Open doors to out-of-state students to keep the doors open for in-state students.”The New York Times later included this handy chart illustrating which states are increasingly seeing their homegrown students leave for public colleges in other places, and which states are taking them in.
Ms. Napolitano reeled off a list of more than a dozen big public universities whose out-of-state enrollment exceeds California’s. Some, like the University of Alabama, where the student body of 37,000 is more than 50 percent nonresident, have resorted to aggressive marketing aimed at luring out-of-staters, including distributing million of dollars in merit aid to nonresidents, much of it to high-achieving students from affluent families, not only improving its bottom line but also raising average test scores, metrics used by commercial ratings groups to rank colleges.
But it is a ratings and financial game, some worry, that means university student bodies will increasingly become alienated from their state’s population.
“It seems like all the incentives are going after wealthy students and leaving the low-income students in the dust,” said Stephen Burd, a senior policy analyst with the New America Foundation who has studied the increased use of merit aid to attract nonresident students.
And Wisconsin is part of this trend, receiving 2,200 more students from out-of-state compared to the Wisconsinites that attend public schools in other states (although about half of this trade of students is with with Minnesota, who Wisconsin still has tuition reciprocity with). UW-Madison is a main beneficiary of this, since it can raise out-of-state tuition to offset some of the funding cuts, and is one of the few UW schools that can get large numbers of students from outside of Wisconsin and Minnesota to pay that full price.
All you have to do is walk around the high-rise and high-priced private dorms on University Avenue and State Street to see some of the result of this strategy, and it was something the Badger Herald Editorial Staff complained about when it spoke in October against Chancellor Becky Blank’s decision to lift the cap on out-of-staters in Madison.
Leading up to the decision, Blank stated several times that declining numbers of high school graduates in Wisconsin, and not revenue generation, was the driving factor behind this proposal, but the chancellor’s excuse fails to address a larger issue.And as a two-time Badger who graduated from an upper-middle class family in Wisconsin, I totally get where the Herald is coming from. I don’t want to see UW become “Wisconsin” in name only with a bunch of students that don’t have a clue about how the average person was brought up, and I’ve always thought the hidden strength of UW is that you get to meet people from a variety of classes and backgrounds, which helps you better relate to varied groups of people, which is a great post-college skill to have.
The Wisconsin Idea should not be disregarded because it is easier to let in out-of-state students than address why fewer high-performing Wisconsin students are applying to UW. Instead of the Regent’s collective apathetic shrug toward Wisconsin students, UW should be working with our K-12 primary systems to improve college readiness and address other underlying factors.
As Noel Radomski, director of UW’s WISCAPE, said this move will make the university “richer and whiter.” Instead of increasing enrollment by targeting low-income and underrepresented Wisconsin students, UW now joins the ranks of public institutions that are happy with increasing the — already substantial — socioeconomic divide on campus. Making UW a bougie playground for the greater Chicagoland area is not the way to keep Wisconsin a world-class institution.
Increasing out-of-state enrollment in a time when Wisconsin residents need the education and services of the university more than ever is a disservice to students, faculty, staff and the state. Increasing the divide between those who have and those who have-not at UW will only reinforce Coastie and Sconnie stereotypes until campus becomes the caricatures it derides.
But I also know that in the face of Walker and WisGOP choosing “no tuition increase” poses and austerity over responsibly funding the UW, that Chancellor Blank has few options left if she wants to have UW-Madison continue as a top-flight school. This likely will increase the divide between us lucky enough to go to a school like Madison and many others in the state who either can’t get in (or never attended college at all), which leads to more of the resentment politics in the left-behind rural Wisconsin that helps Walker and WisGOP stay in power. It’s sick, disgusting, and it hurts the state in pretty much all measures other than GOP power-grabbing, which explains why the ALEC crew does it, I suppose.
It seems timely that the documentary “Starving the Beast” is beginning to pick up steam and is gaining nationwide distribution. I saw a rough cut at the Wisconsin Film Festival this April, and felt like throwing something through the movie screen during much of the film, as it identified the systematic neglect of our great public institutions (and shot through the bullshit reasoning of many of these ALEC types). This film will be showing in Madison at Sundance theater starting on September 16, and UW-Madison is one of several schools that are discussed when it comes to this strategy of “defund and deform.” .
Go see this film, and after you're done make damn sure in November that you remove any ALEC legislator in your neck of the woods that is in favor of this crap