Students are facing rising tuition costs, while at the same time the amount of funding the UW System receives from the state has been steadily decreasing. The University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents met on February 9th to discuss the intersection between tuition costs and state funding for higher education, as well as possible avenues for universities to maintain quality instruction.
“At the core of this debate are some really complex questions that don’t have clear simple answers,” said Kevin Reilly, UW System President. “How do we meet the growing national demand for more well educated graduates even as the resources to produce those graduates continue to diminish?”
Mark Nook, the interim vice president for academic affairs, opened up the meeting with data that clearly shows that tuition rates are increasing far beyond the rate of inflation while at the same time the amount of funding from the state has been decreasing despite the increased demand for higher education.
“We are remaining a good buy for the state and our students,” Nook said, “but we are falling further and further behind the actual costs of running an enterprise like the University of Wisconsin.”
Relative to inflation measured by the Higher Education Price Index, an inflation index that was designed to measure the costs universities face, tuition has gone up by almost $5,000 per student since 1980, while at the same time state funding has dropped $4,000.
Over that time period the system has shifted money to instruction and academic support, areas that directly help students move through their academic career, from the physical operating costs of universities.
This has lead to deferred maintenance costs of $50 million at the University of Wisconsin – STOUT alone, according to STOUT Chancellor Charles Sorensen.
Despite the reduced funding, Nook said that the UW System has become more efficient at producing graduates as the number of degrees awarded each year has risen by 45 percent since 1980, while enrollment has only increased 22 percent.
University administrators were quick to point out that while the level of instruction has remained high; there are areas of the university experience that have suffered.
In a recent report issued by the Goldwater Institute, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee currently ranks near the lowest in terms of instructional staff per student. Currently Milwaukee has 3.5 instructional staff per 100 students, which is exactly half the national average of 7 per 100.
“In our College of Letters and Science we currently have an 800 to 1 student to advisor ratio,” said Michael Lowell, the chancellor at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.
“We have 3500 students per mental health advisor in our health center. Particularly with the stress on students, and when you factor 1,400 veterans on campus who often need more mental health help, these are areas we need to realize that there are other parts of are campus we need to be worried about,” Lowell said.
Regent Jose Vasquez questioned where the balancing point was between being cost-efficient and still providing a high level of instruction to students.
“There is a point where that gets low enough, you cant become anymore efficient, you are going to offer less quality, and I think we are approaching that point,” Lowell said, “I’m not sure what else I can do to cut the cost without the having the quality degrade of that education.”
“In some areas we may be seeing that we’ve crossed that line,” Nook said, “When you look at our academic salaries, they aren’t keeping up.”
Chancellor Lowell jumped in quickly after saying, “Over the last year I’ve lost 41 faculty to other institutions that got better offers and more competitive salaries.”
“When is the message to us to cut enrollment,” Regent David Walsh said. “There are a lot of people questioning the value of higher education if you cannot get a job.”
Chancellor Sorenson said that simply by reducing the amount of incoming freshman would give the appearance that the university was performing better, but at what cost would that have by denying someone the opportunity for higher education.
“If we would reduce our freshman class by 125 or 130 a year, over four years, and retention rates go up, graduation rates go up, and we look like a quote better university. So we can do that yet we deny access to some of those that deserve it," Sorensen said.
Walsh clarified his question, stating that at some point the quality of the education isn’t fair to students, and at what point does enrollment need to be reduced.
“It may be sooner than any of us would like,” Riley said.