Wisconsin spends less on regional universities than other Great Lakes states, report says

    Per-student appropriations
    Wisconsin's per-student appropriations at its Regional Public Universities has lagged behind neighboring states since 2012. (Brookings Institute)

    Wisconsin’s spending per student at its regional public universities (RPUs) has increasingly lagged behind the state’s neighbors in the Great Lakes region, according to a new study by the Brookings Institute. 

    In 2012, Wisconsin’s per student spending at the RPUs was bunched together with the five other states in the region — Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Minnesota. But since then, as per student appropriations for RPUs in the other states have ticked up — excluding Illinois’ higher education budget crisis in 2016 — while Wisconsin’s per student appropriations have decreased. 

    For Wisconsin’s RPUs — the UW System schools, excluding flagship research schools UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee — this disinvestment left campuses vulnerable to the economic crisis caused by COVID-19, worsened student performance, harmed local communities and negatively affected the high proportion of Black, Native American and low-income students that attend these schools, according to the report.

    Now, as states attempt to handle the economic crisis, higher education funding has never returned to the level it was at before the Great Recession and before cuts made by former Gov. Scott Walker. 

    “Additional financial strain will affect not only the schools themselves, but also the broader Great Lakes regional economy, particularly if RPUs are forced to further reduce support for placemaking, research, and public service,” the report says. “When funded sufficiently, nonselective public colleges yield better student outcomes and provide a significant return on investment for students. However, when states disinvest in schools, turning them into ‘vulnerable’ institutions, it results in a poor return on investment for students.”

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    These schools are in a precarious situation, the report notes, because state officials will likely cut higher education budgets to deal with the economic fallout of the pandemic. However, these regional universities — and their role as anchor institutions within communities — position them as important factors to local economic recovery. 

    “This provides a policy imperative not only to rectify the funding situation that these schools face, but also to make further, more robust investments in regional public universities,” the report states. “Given the anticipated hits to state budgets from the COVID-19 downturn, public higher education is likely to face nearly unprecedented fiscal headwinds in the coming months. Unfortunately, state underinvestment in recent years has put RPUs on already-shaky footing, leaving them with little margin to manage a new and significant revenue decline.” 

    That revenue decline is most stark when compared to the flagship campuses in a state. These campuses, with their research focus and brand-recognition, are able to charge higher tuition — especially to the out-of-state and international students they draw. The RPUs serve more local and in-state students, which means lower tuition and less revenue. 

    All of these factors should inform local, state and federal policy decisions, according to the report. 

    Policymakers, the report says, should focus on four main areas for “strengthening these schools’ well-being.” Decisions must be made to restore essential financial support for regional public universities; bolster regional public universities’ place sensitive missions; encourage greater enrollment by nontraditional students and improve data quality for regional public universities and students.

    But, according to the report, these policy decisions don’t look like the explicitly cited effort at UW-Stevens Point to eliminate liberal arts programs or, ultimately, the “blueprint” outlined by outgoing UW System President Ray Cross

    “As generators of both economic activity and a skilled public health workforce, regional public universities are positioned to help communities navigate the worst periods of this downturn and promote a stronger recovery in the years to come,” it states. “These schools will not be able to fulfill their potential for economic growth and closing equity gaps if states continue to disinvest in them.”

    “Unfortunately, the COVID-19 crisis has come as a massive shock to state budgets, meaning states may not have any other option but to reduce funding for public higher education in the coming years,” the report adds. “However, decisive federal action to support RPUs — and indeed all public higher education — coupled with a sustained reinvestment by states as the economy recovers, would help these schools live up to their full educational and economic recovery capacity. By doing so, policymakers can help the country avoid many of the pitfalls of the last recovery and make higher education more equitable for all Americans.”

    Henry Redman
    Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.