Putting the UW System Tuition Freeze in Context

June 3, 2013 | Blog

Today’s Journal Sentinel has an excellent chart illustrating how the challenge of paying for college in Wisconsin has changed over time

The only problem is that neither the chart or the accompanying article addresses the likely assumption of many readers: students who can’t pay these costs, even by working, are “held harmless” through financial aid.  For that reason, many say, we should simply raise tuition further and invest that additional revenue in financial aid distributed to the neediest students.
To evaluate that claim, let’s take a look at the “net price” of attending UW-Madison and UW-comprehensives– the cost paid by the poorest students after taking into account all grant/scholarship aid provided to offset the sticket price.  
At UW-Madison, for the upcoming year 2013-2014, that amount is $13,635.00 for Pell recipients with no expected family contribution.   As you can see in the chart above, that means students from families typically earning less than $30,000 a year are expected to either work 1,866 hours a year (~35 hours/week) or borrow around $68,000 (5 years is typical time-to-degree for these students at Madison).  Is this a reasonable proposition?
In addition, consider that no more than say 3-4% of UW-Madison undergraduates come from this sort of family.  After all, more than 85% of students do not receive any Pell at all. For those students, the net price is over $21,000 in the coming year (total cost in 2013-14i s $24,000).  Redistribution is helping very, very well– and many students with substantial need deliberately overlooked by the federal “needs analysis” are being left out in the cold. It’s no wonder there’s now backlash against our financial aid system– there’s universal need and a narrow means-tested system. Never works. 
Now, let’s turn to the UW Comprehensives. As this recent presentation from System showed, financial aid tends to reduce the price paid by students at these schools by about $2,200 or 17%.  So instead of an average sticker price of $13,000 at places like Parkside or Stout, students tend to face around $11,000. This still means taking on up to $40-50K in debt or working long hours.  The only way in which institutions can claim to meet the need of students from families earning less than $60,000 is by assuming their willingness to borrow $20,000 or more in loans– and frankly, that is a big assumption. When these students graduate, they will have debt amounting to a third of their family’s income, and despite a focus on their “future earning power” that fact will matter more to them than anything else because the primary use of those future earnings will be to help keep the family that raised them afloat. These are not students whose families can contribute to paying off their debt upon graduation- -they are far more likely to be helping to pay off the debt their families accrued thanks to the substantial opportunity costs faced by losing their child-worker while they attended college.
Other skeptics point to the availability of the 2-year colleges throughout the state, again assuming that their costs are affordable.  While tuition is indeed lower, the costs of attendance itself are not.  Students do not live at home rent free while in college any longer– they live at home while paying rent, and while in school lose time in which they would have been working.  In addition, they get far less grant aid because their institutional resources are lower. So once again, this unchecked assumption is wrong– and the colleges themselves know it.  Madison College has billboards posted around Dane County pointing out that students at that college accrue less debt — not no debt.  Since when should students have to borrow to attend a 2-year community institution?
I recognize that many in the political Right want the pending UW System tuition freeze for all the wrong reasons, seeking to starve the System into submission and eventual collapse, to force the end of the public sector.  I also recognize that the freeze will do some harm to the colleges and universities throughout the state, and that harm will be disproportionately distributed.  But what exactly happens depends in great part to the behavior of System and UW-Madison. The smart response would be to seize the opportunity to ensure that state spending is focused on instruction and distributed according to the needs of the students.  The money currently flows disproportionately to the least needy students and is budgeted defensively to support many activities aside from institution.  This must stop.
1. Downsize the administrations at most universities and most significantly at UW-Madison.
2. Ensure that UW-Madison does the lion’s share of the belt-tightening while requiring that it provide wage increases to faculty and staff.  In other words, compel the institution to sacrifice on behalf of its sister institutions and ensure that instruction does not suffer. Find the units in which faculty are not teaching despite have substantial undergraduate enrollment and forbid any teaching releases not paid for with research dollars.  Increase the research “buyout” rate on all grants larger than $250,000.  Ensure that athletic programs either generate revenue for the campus– and pass it along– or close them. Etc.
3. Commission a task force to identify one UW comprehensive university to close and re-assign willing faculty and staff to online endeavors throughout the state.  Do this only after thorough analysis and consider of cost-effectiveness and geographic needs. 
4. Create an indirect cost incentive fund at 3-5 campuses to grow funding from research.
Again, etc.
I doubt any of this will happen because System will not act as the leader it needs to be, and because Madison will be allowed to retain greater power than any other higher education institution in the state, to the great detriment of the vast majority of students.   As a result, the freeze will be followed by a sizable tuition increase.  It shouldn’t– following the freeze, tuition should go up according to something like inflation or labor costs. Nothing more.
Actors on both sides seek to protect interests other than students.  All should be called out for it. A clear and intentional move to a goal of providing universally affordable postsecondary opportunities throughout Wisconsin is long overdue.

5 Comments

  1. Reply

    Anonymous

    June 7, 2013

    I think some of your ideas are interesting. However overall I sense you have a lack of cognizance that UW Madison has a very large research and public service mission. It is not just doing educations. There are many points in your article that sound as if you are assuming that the one and only mission of UW Madison is instruction. It is not. Why should there not be professors who work solely at research or solely in public service? Why should they have to "buy out" of instructional requirements. The buy out thing could really be hurting other research employees. There's only so much money in a grant; if the PI's have to spend a lot on getting out of teaching requirements, that is that much less money for the lower level employees on the grant. They are the victims of this policy.

  2. Reply

    Anonymous

    June 7, 2013

    ^Well said

  3. Reply

    Sara Goldrick-Rab

    June 8, 2013

    I'm very familiar with the multiple missions of institutions like ours, thanks. We're not talking about effective missions but rather about state-funded missions. Our appropriation is mainly for "doing educations", as you put it, not research. I have no issue with having people at Madison doing research or working on public service but there is no question that we must FIRST succeed at the teaching mission-- providing high quality undergrad education at an affordable price-- and there we are no longer succeeding. Be upset about that and help fix it, or there won't be a place for research employees to reside and work while others fulfill that primary mission.

    I agree, certainly, that the "research employees" of Madison will be hurt by these funding changes BUT that has nothing to do with the policy debate-- in practice states do not typically fund higher education institutions as employers or to create jobs so much as they fund them because they produce educated citizens. If there are other functions or missions or types of employees, as they are at Madison, that needs to be funded outside of the money appropriated for teaching. If you look, you'll see our resources for research at Madison have grown tremendously over time. We aren't necessarily hurting for those (until recent federal cuts) but rather hurt lower-level research employees by distributing resources in incredibly inequitable manners.

    So --I'm sure you are not implying that we ought to be using public resources appropriated for undergraduate education to fund lower-level research employees? That would, obviously, be illegal.

    • Reply

      Anonymous

      June 9, 2013

      There is a tremendous overhead amount of money coming from granting agencies to "support research" that is just going straight into the coffers. No one knows what it is spent on. There are many public service entities that create their own revenue, they generally have to although some get funding such as the State Lab or Hygiene, and I am told that the "excess" goes to the state. So to some extent I am told UW is sending money to the state. It's not one way. It well might be a good idea to create more separation between research, public service, and education, especially when professors at the institution have such biases. Research and public service are trying to compete more or less with the private sector (don't tell anyone) and international entities and the private sector has nothing like $800+ a year parking fees, virtually no public parking on campus, and a system that seems to be most optimized for supporting sports. And by the way the State does fund research. You are making higher ed instruction be a auroch-sized sacred cow and it's just not that big of a bovine as you want it to be. You are not selling higher ed instruction by making it a religion and trying to put it on a pedestal above research and public service. It won't work. Take another approach. It has not worked to promote public k12 education as a religion despite k12 did not have the multi-mission complication. The same arguments made there will visit higher ed.

    • Reply

      Sara Goldrick-Rab

      June 9, 2013

      (1) You don't know where the indirect costs go, so you assume they are being transferred to the state? What data do you have to support this? There are numerous myths on the Madison campus about UW System, including some wild ones perpetuated by former Chancellor Martin, the majority of which are entirely false. They also have nothing to do with the question of whether Madison could stand to reduce its instructional costs, or whether it gets more per student funding than it ought, given the differential amount of pre-college preparation its students enjoy.

      2) You write "It well might be a good idea to create more separation between research, public service, and education, especially when professors at the institution have such biases." What exactly does this mean? What biases are you claiming affect which tasks?

      3) You write, "Research and public service are trying to compete more or less with the private sector (don't tell anyone)." On the first, I agree, and it's a problem. On the second, based on what evidence? How exactly does public service try to "compete" at all?

      4) Are you honestly claiming that the education part of higher education is simply not important? There is no one trying to make it a "religion" --that has nothing to do with this discussion. I don't know what you mean by suggesting that one tries to promote public k-12 as a religion. No one has done this. Public education and its origination in the common school movement has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with the role that education plays in a democracy. Higher education today is prerequisite for active participation in democracy-- it is clear that those who attend college are the ones who bother to vote, think critically about national issues and engage in debate about them, and who volunteer to take tough leadership positions. We need people to be educated to ensure we are not a nation of ideologues and reactionaries. Denying access to higher education because we deem them incapable and/or because we aren't willing to fund it, or think research is "more" important, is antithetical to the principles on which this nation is founded. Nothing you've said here contradicts that or undermines the university's obligation to play its part in this mission for the state.


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