College students seldom rally around rising tuition, but the University of Wisconsin at Madison appears to be blunting criticism of its latest increase with a distinctive approach -- letting the students help decide what to do with the money.
In May, the university’s regents approved the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates , allowing for gradually increasing surcharges of $1,000 for residents and $3,000 for nonresidents to be fully implemented by the 2012-13 academic year. The funds generated by the surcharge, which will not be paid by students from families making less than $80,000 a year, are designed to bolster need-based aid, hire new faculty, expand course offerings and improve student services.
In exchange for their support, students sought a legitimate say in how the Madison Initiative funds would be allocated across campus. When the Associated Students of Madison approved a resolution backing the initiative, it did so only with the understanding that students would have a formal role in deciding where dollars would be directed. Chancellor Biddy Martin approved  the initial disbursement of $3.8 million in initiative-generated funds this month, and students who participated in the process said they had a real voice in deciding how the money was spent.
“I know I sound like I’m spouting praise for our administration, but this has been a really well designed program,” said Tyler Junger, chair of the Associated Students of Madison (ASM), which is the university’s student government body.
In addition to approving faculty hires in high-need areas, Martin gave the green light to an international internship program and the development of a campuswide system that will allow academic advisers to share information about students with each other. She also approved several other programs designed to improve learning outcomes and enhance the undergraduate experience.
The ASM wouldn’t give its support to a tuition surcharge without assurances that students would be given oversight authority. In response, the university created a student committee to review spending proposals, while also including student representatives on a second committee of faculty, staff and administrators. Those two committees ranked the strengths of 28 project proposals, and Junger said there was considerable consensus in how proposals were evaluated. Martin had the final say as chancellor, but Junger said the six project proposals she selected were the committees’ highest rated. Martin also approved new faculty hires in the College of Letters & Science and the Wisconsin School of Business, but those proposals were evaluated only by the committee with faculty representation.
“I think it’s much more tenable for students to be paying this increase because they feel a certain amount of control over where the money goes,” Junger said. “Had the chancellor come out and started funding proposals [students opposed], we would have absolutely considered going to the next Board of Regents meeting and saying ‘Hey, we are getting the short end of the stick here.' ”
The two committees will examine future proposals once more this fall and then at least once a year in the spring, advising the chancellor on how best to disburse about half of the $10 million in new money the initiative is expected to generate annually over its four-year implementation. The other half is automatically designated for need-based financial aid.
Initiative Will Have to Prove Worth
Making the case for the funding needs, Madison officials have candidly described some of the university’s challenges. “Bottlenecks” in gateway courses have forced Wisconsin to freeze out hundreds of students each semester, and the initiative aims to address that goal by restoring about 100 faculty and instructional positions that have been eliminated in recent years. The university also acknowledges that there is about $20 million in unmet financial need on its campus each year, and initiative funds and additional fund raising will be required to fill the gap.
Wisconsin helped win student support by directly linking the initiative’s goals with solving well-known problems on campus. At the same time, however, that strategy places pressure on the university to deliver, according to Aaron Brower, vice provost for teaching and learning.
“If we fail, I think we will validate everyone’s worst fear that we can’t manage money,” he said. “If [these hires and projects] don’t substantially impact the undergraduate experience of our students, I think that will be a problem.”
Students already see potential in a campuswide information system for academic advisers, which Martin approved for funding. Students complain that if they change majors or see different advisers, they are often given conflicting advice about what courses they need to take or other academic matters. The database would allow advisers to document the advice students have been given.
Michael Wattiaux, a faculty representative on the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates Oversight Committee, said he's seen students struggle to understand the various expectations of different colleges, in part because there’s so little communication among advisers.
“A student changes major and suddenly they’re in a completely different world,” said Wattiaux, a professor of dairy science.
Apart from expanding advising resources, the chancellor approved several programs aimed at enhancing international programs. One approved project will develop an online tutorial for international students, providing basic information about life in Madison and compliance with federal visa rules. Other proposals will expand international internships, internationalize curriculums and develop short-term study abroad programs that will be feasible for more students. Explaining the rationale for expanded international efforts, one of the proposals noted that the geographic diversity of the university is limited.
“There is no doubt UW-Madison undergraduate students will receive a first rate education while on campus. But, during their time here, their interactions with others will not offer much cultural or social diversity,” the proposal states. “Of the 42,030 undergraduates at UW-Madison in 2008-09, 30,287 (72%) are from Wisconsin, Illinois or Minnesota. This means UW-Madison undergraduates are surrounded by people who look and think very much like them. Time spent abroad during their college career is one way to offset this and help students gain skills in diversity.”
Adam Sheka, a student representative on the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates Oversight Committee, said students are well aware of the problems that funding limitations have created on campus. Whether they’re fighting to get into high-demand classes or watching well-respected professors leave for higher paying jobs, Sheka said students see erosion in quality.
“I think every problem that was outlined in the chancellor’s proposal [for the initiative] said the value of our education is plummeting if we don’t do something,” he said. “I think that’s entirely true.”