Thursday, December 4, 2008

Investment in higher ed crucial to affordability and prosperity

Wisconsin received an F for the affordability of higher education in a new study by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

College education was more affordable in Illinois and Minnesota, two states that have higher per capita incomes and a larger percentage of four- year graduates than Wisconsin.

For several years Wisconsin's political, education and business leadership has made increasing the number of four-year college graduates a public policy goal. But the state has not made the investments necessary to accomplish this goal.

According to a New York Times article on the report: "The rising cost of college — even before the recession — threatens to put higher education out of reach for most Americans..."

The report found that published college tuition and fees increased 439 percent from 1982 to 2007 while median family income rose 147 percent. Student borrowing has more than doubled in the last decade, and students from lower-income families, on average, get smaller grants from the colleges they attend than students from more affluent families.

The increase in costs has been particularly hard for middle class and poor families. Last year, the net cost at a four-year public university amounted to 28 percent of the median family income, while a four-year private university cost 76 percent of the median family income.

Among the poorest families — those with incomes in the lowest 20 percent — the net cost of a year at a public university was 55 percent of median income, up from 39 percent in 1999-2000.

Even at two-year colleges the cost was 49 percent of the poorest families’ median income last year, up from 40 percent in 1999-2000.

The cost of attending Wisconsin's public colleges has risen rapidly because state support has declined precipitously. As recently as 1990, the state provided the Wisconsin Technical System's colleges (WTCS) with about 30% of their funding. That contribution has fallen by 50% to less than 15%. WTCS students, who pay 20% of the costs, now contribute more than the state! And the state contribution to the University of Wisconsin's total operations budget has fallen to below 20%.

As the state's investment in higher education and occupational training has declined, the University of Wisconsin System and the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) have raised tuition and fees, shifting the cost of post-secondary education to students and their families.

The WTCS's adult basic education tuition has increased 54.6% over the last ten years; collegiate transfer tuition by 57.3%. Two-year UW college tuition increased by a whopping 82.6% and UW Madison by 83.8%.

These tuition increases are making higher education less accessible for middle class and low- income students. 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."

Wisconsin's continued disinvesment in higher education makes a mockery of the goals of increasing the number of four-year college graduates and training a skilled labor force.

If these trends are not reversed, higher education and occupational training, keys to competitive advantage in the global economy, will be increasingly inaccessible for Wisconsin's middle and working class students.

State leaders, faced with a $5.4 billion deficit, need to resist the temptation to reduce Wisconsin's investment in higher education. It is a strategic investment that is essential to Wisconsin's long term growth and the prosperity of its businesses and citizens. It is particularly crucial now as dislocated workers and returning veterans flock to tech colleges.

In these hard times, the state needs to increase its investment in tech colleges and public universities so that when the economy begins to grow again we have the the skilled and technical workforce and the innovative ideas that a growing economy requires.

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