More Hard Conversations We Need to Have

March 14, 2011 | Blog


As we think about ways to cope with proposed cuts to the UW System budget, here are a few more facts to ponder:

1. Costs-per-student are remarkably unequal throughout Wisconsin public higher education.

According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, “The cost per student calculation is based on standard accounting procedures that identify direct and indirect student-related costs funded by GPR and student fees. The calculation includes the direct costs of instruction, student services, and academic support. Other activity costs, such as physical plant, institutional support, and fringe benefits, are included in the cost per student calculation with the costs allocated based on the teaching mission’s share of those costs. In those instances where a faculty or staff member performs research as part of his or her educational responsibilities, only those costs directly related to instruction are included in the cost pool for setting tuition.”

The disparities by universities are nothing short of enormous: “Systemwide, the average instructional cost per undergraduate student is $9,910. The cost of educating an undergraduate student ranges from $8,289 at La Crosse and Whitewater to $12,747 at Madison, a difference of more than 50%.” Overall, there is a variance of 42% in instructional costs across campuses!

Moreover, there are enormous disparities in the proportion of their instructional costs students and their families are being asked to cover: “Students at the campuses where instructional costs are the lowest, such as Whitewater, La Crosse, and Oshkosh, are paying a greater share of their educational costs than students at campuses with the highest instructional costs, including Superior and Parkside. For example, while upper level (Junior/Senior) students at Parkside paid 36% of the cost of their education, lower level (Freshmen/Sophomore) students at La Crosse paid 90%.”

Here is the real kicker: “Despite paying a higher amount of tuition, students at UW-Madison pay a lower percentage of their instructional costs than the average for students at the comprehensive campuses. By contrast, students at Milwaukee pay a greater share of their instructional costs than students at the comprehensive campuses. This is due to both lower than average instructional costs and the tuition premium students pay for attending a doctoral institution.”

Students at UW-Madison are from wealthier families compared to students at the other institutions, and enter with higher test scores– so why is it that they cost more to educate and chip in a smaller share of those costs????

2. We have two different types of two year colleges– the UW Colleges (branch campuses of the 4-year universities) and the Wisconsin Technical College System. In some parts of the state, a UW College and a technical college exist within a mile of one another! Many students have no idea what the difference is between these schools. The UW College students benefit from established articulation agreements within the UW System, while the technical colleges are constrained to only having transfer as an explicit mission at a very few campuses. Why is this? Who benefits?

The analysis by the LFB reveals that the UW Colleges spend more per student than most of the universities spend on their freshman and sophomores. Those freshman and sophomores also contribute a lower percentage of their instructional costs. Why is this? Are the retention rates higher at UW Colleges than at universities? In other words, is this higher spending cost-effective?

This are tough questions and these difficult times demand answers. In a recent paper Doug Harris and I argued for a new approach to considering how scarce resources in higher education should be spent. The data needed to estimate the effects of different strategies (including number of campuses, spending, program coordination etc) should be made available so that the public and the administrations can begin to consider costs relative to effects.

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