“Free” Higher Education in Wisconsin: Obstacles, and Possibilities pt 4 of 4 -Finale!

(It’s more of an essay than a blog post, I agree. But we can’t solve (or even start to solve) these complex problems in the span of a paragraph or two. So please if you are interested, bear with me, and if you’re not, why did you click the link in the first place 🙂


Enough with me pointing out what’s wrong or the obstacles in our way.  What are our options moving forward?

Well, I have several alternatives in mind.

Option one: We explore free higher education at a limited scale and focusing on directly impacting the current economic state of Wisconsin.  There is honestly no need for all 26 UW-schools to be doing roughly the same program.  It’s a HUGE system with massive costs.  The 13 two-year colleges are spread throughout the state with low enrollment and limited options to pursue a degree in.  Most serve as a conduit for students to later attend larger UW schools after getting their associate degree.  Additionally, these schools have had the same level of tuition for several years and are not a large source of income for the system to function and will be a lower cost to offset by the state/fundraising.

So, we can explore two parallel paths here in two-year college reform.  The first path is focusing on funneling talent into the upper UW system.  This is for students of lower income who cannot feasibly afford to come to the UW-Madison/anywhere else in the state.  These schools would allow a student to start their degree and after two years transfer to a larger school, effectively only paying HALF the regular amount for the education.  Not enough, some of you may say, but let’s start somewhere.    Additionally, to make this feasible at a single school, we would need to limit major selections at these schools OR focus on general education.  A small school could have Political Science/History at one UW college, and Business/Economics at another.  This keeps professor and advisor costs lower (everyone is pursuing similar things) plus it allows system to allocate proper resources by “specializing” in the school.  A foreign fellow who is teaching Poli Sci for a semester at Madison would likely be willing to give one guest lecture at the “UW-College of Political Science and History” which gives access to top talent to these students.  That’s pretty narrow, I admit, but I mean to stress that core areas should go together (Poli Sci/History/International Studies/Religious Studies/ etc) and not try to be all encompassing.

OR these schools could go to a general format where they only offer courses which satisfy general requirements at all the other UW-schools (think Calculus, Chemistry, Comm A/B, ethnic studies, etc.)  This allows students to take a broad spectrum of courses while actively pursuing a degree and keeping costs low by allowing the high powered upper level faculty to focus elsewhere and have other educators at these institutions.

Second path is establishing vocational training at some institutions.  Our local economies need mechanics, they need clinical nursing assistants, and they need agricultural experts.  Of course, that is not exhaustive but its representative of what our community colleges should focus on: helping the immediate community prosper.  So, that would entail eliminating much of a traditional “Liberal Arts” degree (which parallels most Euro-versities) and focusing on vocational education.  Of concern, of course is the overlap with Wisconsin Technical System and since the state also funds parts of them, perhaps the answer lies in turning some of their schools into the vocational ones and having the UW ones be pipeline schools.  This is one part of my argument that I’m up in the air about and am having difficulties coming to grips with a plan.

Additionally, existing tech schools are too general.  The one in my neighboring town offers majors in psychology, political science, history, and sociology, in addition to the standard clinical nursing assistant, welding, etc.  A tech school should not be doing these exhaustive programs that detract resources from their primary value and focus.  Let’s be smarter about these schools and stick to the do what you do best principle.

So we break up our two-year institutions into 3 groups; one that remains in the current format, one that switches to specific pipelines, and one that focuses on vocational training.

According to my calculations, with a total enrollment around 11,350 students, this will be a $48,441,800 drop in revenue (from tuition) for the UW-System (statistics taken from here: http://www.uwc.edu/) This is a drop in the bucket compared with the $2.4 BILLION operating budget of UW-Madison and the $65.7 Billion budget of Wisconsin[i].  $48 Million, while substantive, is not insurmountable.  Some cuts to corrections (not by using Minnesota’s faulty techniques, but by using smart measures such as more efficient courthouses (we should be able to get through more cases per day), and decriminalizing possession of marijuana are good starts), in addition to modest taxes, like sales, should provide enough to make up this shortfall.  It is also important to remember that out-of-state students will be coming to these schools and their tuition will not be free so we will not lose ALL $50 million. And, in my plan the two or three largest colleges would retain their current status as tuition charging so a chunk of that fund will remain.

So with a handful of colleges remaining tuition charging, to help balance the sheets and to provide more options than the baseline, a handful of vocational schools and a handful of pipeline schools, we would have a revamped and substantially more affordable system while not tarnishing the reputation of UW-Madison by detracting resources.  A relatively modest amount of money could accomplish this.


The second alternative is much more long term but necessary to achieve any semblance of parity in higher education and to allow Wisconsin to become the higher education leader it rightfully is.  Basically, we need to concentrate on getting K12 more money, specifically struggling areas.  More money in K12 brings in a demand for more educators (and especially those upper-tier ones from fancy schools like Madison), and the higher base level of education immediately benefits the community.  Secondly, once education levels across the state begin to stabilize (where predominantly rural white communities perform the same as urban minority communities) we can move towards a merit based scholarship system.   Such a system would allow the state to draw top talent from not only Wisconsin but across the country and further increase the prestige (and therefore research funding) coming into our state.  This perpetuates a cycle of increased funding which translates into better education and lower costs for students.

As research continues to pile into the state and entrepreneurs with basic high school education start up new businesses, jobs and the economy will grow, resulting in increased revenue for the state, allowing the regents to lobby for lower tuition rates and higher funding for the system.  Additionally, since many of the lagging schools are urban, the renewed focus will help revitalize struggling economies like Milwaukee’s and Green Bay’s.

As I said, this is a long term plan, but it is absolutely essential if we want anything close to lower tuition.  Without parity at the K12 level, free education at the University level just leads to increased admission standards and further exclusivity of the higher achieving suburbanites.


Basically we have two options: lower costs at select schools in short period of time by focusing on just higher ed funding or lower costs at all schools by focusing on K12 spending over a long period of time.  In all reality, both would likely occur within a few years of each other if one was ever enacted.

However, I do recognize several (many) flaws with my plans.

  1. The Supreme Court just announced that Wisconsin owes $200 million to an internal fund that it transferred to pay its deficit last year, so we’re deeper in debt.[ii]
  2. A tremendous amount of calculations for this idea need to be done.  This is an FY 14-15 budget proposal at the earliest.
  3. I do not address changes to the comprehensives or research schools.  Partially, its because I would like them to remain the same and partially because I’m unsure how the new system would affect their own admissions and administrative offices.
  4. What about student fees? Textbooks? Dorms?  This was an analysis of just tuition and I honestly think that we need to just start small and somewhere.  Student fees, etc are still payable because if they don’t we can kiss the entire idea goodbye.  WAYYYY too much money then.

So there it is, my 4 part series on higher education and funding problems and solutions.  I hope you found it informative and thought provoking as I put great effort into researching and writing this.  Please, post any comments, questions or concerns below and I will do my best to reply to questions.  I seek to encourage discussion on this matter because I believe a middle ground between two extremes does exist and we could be close to finding it.


[i] http://www.legis.state.wi.us/lfb/2009-11Budget/Act%2028/2009_07_22_2009-11%20budget%20summary%20information%20(Act%2028).pdf

[ii] http://www.cnbc.com/id/38323249


2 Comments on ““Free” Higher Education in Wisconsin: Obstacles, and Possibilities pt 4 of 4 -Finale!”

  1. CampusCaucus says:

    It’s more of an essay than a blog post, I agree. But we can’t solve (or even start to solve) these complex problems in the span of a paragraph or two.

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