How Bad Are Things in Wisconsin, Really?

March 14, 2011 | Blog

When things look terrible in your neck of the woods, it’s always useful to take a look around– it helps to put things in perspective.

I’ve been hearing a lot about how Wisconsin has disinvested in higher education over the past several decades, leaving Madison with no choice but to jump ship to become its own public authority.

Today Tom Mortenson issued the latest issue of Postsecondary Education Opportunity, this one on “State Fiscal Support for Higher Education.”

Here are a few key highlights:

(1) In FY 2011 Wisconsin ranks 23rd in state fiscal support for operating expenses of higher education per $1,000 of personal income. The state spends $6.72, compared to a national average of $6.30. Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, Virginia, Ohio all spend LESS.

(2) We rank 34th in the rate of change in state fiscal support over time (FY1980-FY2011). The national average is a decrease of 39.9% — in Wisconsin we saw a decline of 45.2%. In contrast, Minnesota saw a 55.8% decline, Virginia a 53.6% decline, and Michigan a 45.3% decline. The decline we have experienced in the last 10 years was especially mild, compared to declines felt in other states (15.3% compared to 18.1% on average). Heck, Virginia saw a 38.2% decline in the last 10 years alone, and Michigan a 32.3% decline!

So, what’s really going on? How can we juxtapose this with the rampant claims that the state support for UW-Madison (and UW System generally) has become a smaller and smaller share of our revenue over time? The key word in those claims is “share.” Sure, we’ve had some declines in state support (while we should have had some increase to keep up with the increasing per-pupil costs of education)– but the much larger change at UW-Madison is the significant growth in our federal funding and revenue from tuition and fees. Thus, as a percentage of Madison’s total budget, the state’s share is smaller. That’s the figure being used to say that we (Madison) are no longer a public institution “anyway” — and thus a public authority isn’t a real change.

But that seems to twist the facts– the state has continued to invest in Wisconsin higher education (and Madison in particular), albeit at a lower rate than before (other expenses like Medicare and prison are getting in the way), and since UW-Madison has not kept costs sufficiently under control it’s turned to other sources to compensate. My guess? It would’ve done that anyway, to grow the research function of the university. Just look at our expenditures over the last ten years– the ratio of money spent on teaching vs. research declined from 0.65 in 1999-2000 to 0.57 in 2004-2005, and now sits at .63. Put differently, we’ve seen a 56% increase in spending on research over the last decade, compared to a 51% increase in spending on instruction.

Facts are important– let’s stick to them. Wisconsin would be very wise to invest more in public higher education, since the economic and social returns are substantial. But it’s not the case that Madison is at particular risk of a decline in instructional quality, a problem that COULD ONLY BE SOLVED by the New Badger Partnership.

In my opinion, the University of Wisconsin System needs to lead a hard conversation about the missions of its institutions, what they can and should receive public funding to achieve, and what priority must be given to cost-containment and instruction.


  1. Reply

    Mike Bormett

    March 17, 2011

    Hi Sara,

    I don’t think we’ve met, but I know Liam from his time in the Gov’s office working with DPI, so hopefully he’ll vouch for the fact I’m not totally out-there! :-) I’m a UW-Madison grad, and for the record, I think the possible split of Madison is something that should be considered more at-length outside the budget process.

    First off, I wholeheartedly agree with your concluding sentence about what the System needs to do. I’d also say the state needs to do the same thing with respect to the UW Colleges vs. the tech colleges, which you allude to in your “More hard conversations” post.

    One thought I’ve had on this discussion around the NBP, WIP, etc is that the Regents have brought this on themselves to a certain extent. Take differential tuition. The Regents have been falling over themselves the past five years to approve ever-larger differential tuition increases on System campuses: $1,200 at UW-Madison for the WIU, $1,000 at La Crosse and $1,200 at Eau Claire. Each represented a double-digit campus-wide tuition increase, which on some campuses was over and above other substantial department-specific differential tuition increases. For the Regents now to be complaining about the possibility for significant tuition increases at UW-Madison if it were split off is, I feel, disingenuous. In each case, the Regents approved the large tuition increases to preserve “quality and access” on that particular campus, terms which are never readily defined in the proposals.

    Is it possible that the Regents, via their ongoing approvals of large differential tuition, have effectively taken the legislature off the political hook for providing adequate state GPR increases to support UW System campus operations? As you point out, there are/have been many other large demands for GPR in recent budgets: K-12, Medicaid, and Corrections. If I’m the legislature and I see a Board of Regents willing to approve double-digit campus-wide tuition increases (outside the “regular” tuition-setting board agenda item each summer), then I might be tempted to let the System take care of itself. Your critique of the “state share” argument is valid, but for me it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. Have the Regents felt compelled to increase tuition in response to inadequate increases in state support thus creating the lower state-share percentage? Or has the legislature not increased GPR as much in light of the tuition increases?

    Lastly, on the topic of competition, while the System has generally worked effectively, I see competition already between campuses for resources and “prestige”. The differential tuition situation exemplifies this, I believe, because each campus chancellor now sees that he/she can get another $1,000/student or more by simply coming forward with a proposal. With many of the 4-year campuses already having a campus-wide differential tuition, I would expect to see the other campuses looking to follow-suit so they can also protect “quality and access” on their campuses. Also, the System and Regents continue to approve duplicative new academic programs on every campus. Whenever a new degree program is brought forward, it is almost always offered by at least two, sometimes three or four, other System campuses. The requesting campus simply makes its “regional need” argument for having another program. This, to me, is precisely the kind of “competition” that the Regents are now so strongly protesting against under the proposed split. Is it too far a stretch to say that each campus doesn’t want to look like it’s suffering from a lack of program offerings compared to its Systems siblings? Aren’t they all looking out for what’s best for their own campuses in these cases? There could be a different kind of competition for limited state dollars with a split. Maybe I’m overstating it, and it’s only one example, but I don’t necessarily buy the argument that there’s no competition within the System today and there will be only if Madison gets split off on its own.

    Thanks for listening!

  2. Reply

    Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab

    March 17, 2011


    I agree with you-- the regents are partly at fault for failing to take a stand sooner! I was completely opposed to the MIU and other such initiatives and appalled they approved it- see my posts from back when that happened.

    That said, the question is how to go forward....

  3. Reply


    March 17, 2011

    Thanks, Sara. I'll go back and read your posts.

    I'm tending to think there's enough out-state opposition from Repubs that the Madison split won't happen. Unfortunately, I don't think they'll turn the whole system over to a public authority, either. So...I fear we'll have the worst of all worlds - a $250 million cut to the system, combined with a tuition cap of 5.5% and no add'l flexibility (I can't say "tools" anymore...) to really change how the campuses function. As you said, some hard conversations are forthcoming on what this SYstem will look like in the future.


  4. Reply

    Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab

    March 17, 2011


    I actually hope you are right and here is why: if you put the description of the new public authority including shared governance ( ch37) in front of walker as passed legislation, he can use the line item veto to delete shared governance and keep the rest-- so yes, we would be a new public authority, have flexibility, and no shared governance,

    To me that is worse than your expected outcome.


  5. Reply


    March 18, 2011

    Hey Sara,

    Hope you don't mind my chiming-in again. :-)

    I would definitely share your concern if shared governanace was stripped away, by whatever means. But since Gov. Walker retained shared governance for Madison in the new Chap 37 in the biennial budget, what makes you concerned he would veto his own language if the legislature somehow sent him a statewide UW Authority? Would it just be out of spite? (And, I fully believe he does things out of spite...hello, collective bargaining!)

    If he wanted to jettison shared governance, he could have done it as part of the Madison split, or do you think it becomes a different issue if it's part of a statewide authority? Of course, if we want to be fully Machiavellian, he could have been planning to veto the UW-Madison shared governance language all along, but didn't want to show his hand up front.

    Thanks! Mike

  6. Reply

    Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab

    March 18, 2011

    Mike--We have every reason in the world to think fully Machiavellian. He hates UW-Madison (as does his constituency) and isn't a fan of higher ed more generally. When giving back the train money, he made comments about the wealthy lawyers and professors who wanted to dine in Chicago. He didn't talk about ending collective bargaining in his campaign--just about giving localities "tools"-- and I am sure he sees shared governance as both inefficient (it takes additional time of administrators to engage with these constituencies) and elite. He has consistently had plans and not revealed them til the "appropriate" time and there is no other way he would end shared governance than by getting it placed into a bill along with stuff our chancellor WOULD lobby for, getting the legislature to pass the whole package, and then using his veto to "delete" shared governance.

    This is a chess match--we must think at least 3 moves ahead-- he sure is, and I sure wish our chancellor was too.


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