Wisconsin policy makers have made increasing the number of four-year college graduates a strategic objective. Yet, the state's aggressive policy of incarceration is crowding out investments in higher education, undermining its ability to accomplish this goal.
Between 1987 and 2007, Wisconsin actually cut its support for higher education by 6%. Only 6 states reduced their investment in higher ed by more. During the same period, Wisconsin increased corrections spending by 251%, 8th highest nation, despite a declining crime rate.
Wisconsin's incarceration rates are higher than the neighboring states of Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa and the state's African American incarceration rate is the nation's highest.
A recent study released by the Pew Center on the States reports that the U.S. prison population has tripled over the past 20 years. The United States now holds the distinction of imprisoning more of its own citizens, both in total number and share of the adult population, than any country in the world.
In 2007, the United States had a record-breaking one out of every 100 adults in prison. Policy changes in sentencing and parole revocation, rather than increases in crime, have largely driven the increase in incarceration rates.
States, like Wisconsin, shoulder the vast majority of the costs associated with these policies. While states struggle with gaping budget shortfalls (see the recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities), incarceration rates and costs continue to escalate, consuming growing portions of state general funds and forcing cuts in high education and other programs.
As Wisconsin's higher education funding has declined, the University of Wisconsin System and the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) have been forced to raise tuition, shifting the cost of post-secondary education to students and their families.
The WTCS's adult basic education tuition increased 54.6% over the last ten years; collegiate transfer tuition by 57.3%. Two-year UW colleges have increased their tuition by a whopping 82.6 and UW Madison by 83.8%. Rapidly rising tuition costs have made it even more difficult for lower income residents to pursue post secondary education.
Recent studies conducted by the University of Wisconsin System concluded that students from lower income families were increasingly under-represented in the state’s public baccalaureate education institutions. Between 1992 and 2002, the percentage of freshmen reporting family incomes in the lowest quintle (less than $30,000) fell by nearly one-fourth, from 14.5% to 11.0%. At the same time, the percentage of freshmen reporting family incomes in the state’s top quintile (greater than $87,000) rose by nearly one-fifth.
The WTCS/UW Committee on Baccalaureate Expansion concluded: "...Wisconsin students from lower income families have less access to a college education than in the U.S. as a whole."
Unless Wisconsin addresses its escalating incarceration costs, it will not be able to meet its objective of increasing the number of four-year graduates or train the next generation of technical and skilled workers.