New Strategy at Wisconsin

Faced with revenue declines and dwindling faculty numbers, Madison may raise tuition on all but its neediest students, mirroring a model private institutions often employ.

April 1, 2009

The University of Wisconsin at Madison might be called a victim of its own successes. The state’s flagship institution has recruited prominent faculty, but has been forced to enter bidding wars with wealthy private institutions just to retain them. On top of that challenge, budget cuts and cost increases have made it difficult for the university to fill positions vacated by retiring baby boomers, leaving faculty lines open and forcing the university to cut course offerings.

The challenges facing Wisconsin are systemic, and they have only been exacerbated by the economic downturn, according to Biddy Martin, who was named chancellor a little more than six months ago.

“The traditional revenue sources haven’t been able to keep pace with the cost of higher education, certainly not at a major research university,” Martin said.

It’s in this context that Martin has unveiled the “Madison Initiative for Undergraduates,” a plan that would boost tuition at the flagship campus beyond that of the rest of the system, while at the same time sparing the neediest students from those hikes and increasing their financial aid. For in-state students with family incomes of at least $80,000, a surcharge of $1,000 would be tacked onto tuition over four years, and $3,000 would be added for non-residents.

The increases would be used to hire 75 new faculty members over four years, increasing access to courses where demand often outpaces availability. Martin says the proposal is essentially a “reasonable tuition, high financial aid model.” The phrase is a twist on the “high tuition, high aid” model commonly employed by private institutions.

Ronald Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute and an expert on the financing of public universities, said it’s to be expected that flagship institutions will have to borrow from the private model to maintain quality in an environment of diminishing resources. That said, there are potential pitfalls.

“This [increase] is actually going to hit a relatively large fraction of the students, and the downside risk is that there may turn out to be a lot of political opposition to it,” said Ehrenberg, a professor of economics.

“There’s always sort of the fear that if you raise tuition you’re going to lose public support, and that’s going to make state appropriations go away even faster,” he added.

Students Lobbied for Support

To help drum up support from the very students who would see these tuition hikes, Martin has led something of a charm offensive. On a Tuesday evening last week, she invited about 70 students to a dinner at her home, where she laid out the specifics of the plan and touted its promised benefits. Students were given a buffet spread of chicken and pasta, and then divided up into small groups with administrators who entertained their questions and comments.

Brittany Wiegand, chair of the Associated Students of Madison, said she’s receptive to the plan, but would like to see more detail.

“I haven’t seen enough really yet of the exact figures, and the nitpicky details about the funding,” said Wiegand, who attended the chancellor's dinner.

The Badger Herald, Wisconsin’s student newspaper, endorsed the plan in an editorial, but expressed a similar desire for greater detail.

If the proposal is adopted by the Wisconsin regents in May, students have pressed the chancellor to give ongoing reports about how the money is being spent. Martin says she’s embraced the idea of maintaining a Web site that will update students and the public on expenditures, and the regents' own rules demand that there be a student representative on any oversight committee.

“I don’t think students and their families should be asked to pay more tuition … if we can’t tell them how we’re going to use it,” Martin said.

If tuition increases 5.5 percent next year across all Wisconsin campuses, as is expected, then Wisconsin residents who pay the surcharge would pay a total of $7,295 at Madison. For nonresidents, the total would be $22,045.

Wisconsin Reveals Some Uncomfortable Truths

To sell the Madison Initiative, Martin has had to be candid about some shortcomings at the institution. Offering need-based aid simply hasn't been part of the "tradition" at Wisconsin, and that's left a gap of about $20 million in annual unmet need at the university, according to Martin. The Madison Initiative is expected to provide $10 million to close the gap, and a simultaneous fund-raising effort is designed to raise the remaining $10 million.

Historically, Wisconsin has put most of its money toward funding students based on merit -- not need. In 2006-7, the university awarded $23 million in merit-based aid to undergraduates, compared with $6.5 million in need-based aid, according to university officials.

In addition to some blunt talk about unmet need on campus, Martin has outlined some of the headaches students now face because of budgetary constraints. A Wisconsin Web site devoted to the initiative gives a breakdown of the difficulty students have getting into high-demand courses. In one such economics course, for instance, an average of 200 students are frozen out each semester. Another biology class wait lists 80 people each fall. In an Introduction to Organic Chemistry class, demand exceeds capacity by 300 students every semester.

Despite the problems outlined by Martin, she maintains that quality has not “eroded” – yet.

“We have to catch the problem as it is and correct it, but I would say the quality of the education here is very, very high," she said.

The College of Letters and Sciences, where most of the undergraduate teaching takes place, has been particularly hard hit by decreasing faculty numbers. Gary Sandefur, the college’s dean, says the college now has about 840 faculty, 65 fewer than it had in the 2003-4 academic year. The college enrolls about 21,000 students.

The dwindling size of the faculty it attributable to retirements and competition with other universities, which have recruited Wisconsin faculty with gusto. Indeed, the problem of faculty “poaching” grew to the extent that the Legislature stepped in two years ago, appropriating $10 million to help retain Wisconsin faculty. While the money helps, the struggle to hang onto the best and brightest continues, Sandefur says.

“The problem is never going to go away. There’s just a lot of competition for the best faculty members,” he said. “We’re not the only institution that has to compete. It’s just a very competitive market out there.”

Much of the focus of the Madison Initiative has been on increasing course offerings, as well as the amount of time students have to interact with tenured and tenure-track faculty. But Sandefur acknowledges that the newly recruited faculty will not be asked to carry any heavier teaching responsibilities to fulfill that goal.

“This is a major research university, and the faculty we hire we will expect to be outstanding researchers,” he said. “But there will be an expectation that the availability of faculty members to teach, spend time with, supervise [and] mentor undergraduate students will be something that happens as well.”

For the students who are furthest along in their academic careers, there’s little chance the new faculty hires will be in place before graduation. Given the standard hiring season in higher education, new faculty won’t be on campus until at least the second year of the initiative. A Wisconsin alumnus made that point in a letter to The Badger Herald that called the plan "simple robbery."

“Parents, then, should not be fooled into thinking they are somehow making a direct contribution to the betterment of their own child’s education,” James Farrell, an alumnus, wrote. “The surcharge current students and parents pay will go to help those who enroll after the current students have begun paying back student loans.”

Martin acknowledges that the full benefit of the initiative may not be felt for upperclassmen. She still sees an incentive, however, for those students to support the tuition increases.

“They don’t want to be graduating from a university that they can’t in 20 or 30 years say is one of the world’s great research universities,” she said. “But it’s obviously going to be of more immediate value to some than others.”


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