Higher Education Access

In Wisconsin, the largest state agency has got to be the University of Wisconsin System. With its flagship campus in Madison, the UW System has 13 four-year colleges and 13 additional campuses statewide. That means that it educates a lot of students. And since it’s in the business of educating the hopefully best and brightest, it also means that our lawmakers have a strong interest in keeping the system going strong.

Unfortunately, the State’s current economic climate does not allow its government to funnel the level of funding to the System that it has in the past. As a result, the UW campuses are looking for ways to live within its budget limitations and provide a good education.

Like every other agency, the UW System has been crying wolf at budget cuts. It threatens to raise tuition and admission standards to provide quality education to those students that are already attending as well as the incoming freshmen. In my opinion, that’s a good move. But it is also a politically controversial one, since it realizes that many students will be denied access to higher education within the system.

So why do I care? I was a product of the UW System. I received both a bachelor’s and master’s degree at UW-Milwaukee (UWM). My college did provide me with a good education and a good curriculum, but I’m still paying back the tuition. Overall, though, after several years of college, I think I got a bargain.

Every year since I started studying at UWM, I saw tuition increase. Every year, I paid it (well, borrowed to pay it). Every year, I realized that I was still getting a quality education. And yet, I chose to go there because it was a lot cheaper than going to a private school. Tuition for a private school would’ve cost me about three to five times as much as what I paid at UWM. In fact, my annual high school tuition was higher than my annual college tuition.

So, getting back to why I care, I’m sick and tired of hearing students bitch and whine about how it’s becoming more difficult to get into school and afford it. I’ve seen and heard some students suggest that they might have to work and go to school at the same time. Oh no, many of them might have to find part-time jobs to pay for college. And oh my, it’s tough going to school full-time and working at the same time. (Do you sense a bit of sarcasm yet?)

Yeah, right. I’m no honor student, and yet I managed to not only work while going to school, but I did both full-time. While working on my master’s degree, I worked full-time in a retail shop selling plumbing and hardware. Amazingly, I managed to pay for school (most of which I’m still paying), get and maintain good grades, and find work in my field. I even took summer and winter classes so that I could graduate sooner.

So I think I have every right to say to all those students out there, “Deal with it!” All state agencies are hurting, not just the UW System. Even the Department of Transportation (my employer) with its own fund is struggling during this economic slump. So all agencies need to find creative ways to deal with the budget deficit. If the UW administrators need to cut enrollment and increase standards, then more power to them. I don’t see any real solutions coming from those whiners that want to study there.

Those that are in college and don’t take the chance to work while in school never get a dose of reality until after they graduate and find employment in the workplace. There’s a fairly large difference between theory and practice, and students that don’t learn that before graduation lose out on valuable educational experience.

Furthermore, I’m not sure that everyone belongs in college. There are many students that I’ve met during my college days that didn’t belong there. Their narrow-mindedness and poor academic performance made them more suitable for ditch-digging. Higher education is about more than learning what’s in a book; it’s a chance to open your mind and consider the possibility that it’s not a black-and-white world. Furthermore, college should prepare you to come up with alternatives and think outside the box (well, at least in my field of study). No, I didn’t expect to solve the problems of the world, and that wasn’t why I went to college. Instead, it offers you a foundation of what may work and what hasn’t worked, and how to analyze and weigh alternatives. Not everyone can be a leader; someone has to follow. Likewise, if you’ve read my soapbox on technology, then you know that not everyone can work in IT (or better yet, look at the dot-com bust).

Another thing I find interesting is that the UW System has had it relatively easy versus other state agencies. It has managed to keep costs down because Wisconsin’s taxpayers subsidize the system. Yet students don’t realize that they’re paying only a portion of the total cost of their own subsidized education. While hard-working people have had to sacrifice more out of their paychecks to receive less direct benefits from the State, they’ve continued to subsidize the UW. A quick search of 2001 Wisconsin Act 16 will demonstrate all of the exemptions that the UW System received during the 2001-03 biennial budget cycle. 2001 Wisconsin Act 109 (2001-03 biennial budget repair bill) required additional cuts to most state agencies, with the exception of the UW System.

What’s worse, though, is that most students that earn their degrees in Wisconsin move to other states for work. So the intellectual property that the State produces does not directly contribute to its economy. As a result, the taxpayers end up with a double-whammy of subsidizing students; first through the initial tuition subsidy, and second through additional economic burdens developed by the deficit of those that have moved to other states with their taxpayer-subsidized degrees. As more students graduate and find jobs elsewhere, the State’s economy continues to spiral downwards as those that remain in Wisconsin end up paying more for the State’s overall public burden.

I could just state that the grass is greener on the other side, but I imagine that most UW System students chose their schools because of the lower tuition. As I stated before, a comparable private school could cost at least four times as much. Another benefit that students are receiving, though, is the increasing financial aid they’ll continue to receive because the federal government is also subsidizing student tuition. For those that receive federal financial aid, they know (and hopefully realize) that this lessens their short-term financial burden of paying for school. For those that don’t apply (for whatever reason), they are in the dark about this opportunity. Federal aid does help with the up-front tuition costs of a public school more than the up-front tuition costs of a private school. If tuition for public schools mirrored that of private schools, students would have a much more difficult time with paying tuition, as well as receiving financial aid (with the exception of grants and scholarships).

To conclude, it may be unfortunate that everyone that desires to go to school will not get in. But if it takes higher standards and tuition for people to get a quality education, then perhaps we will see quality graduates. My experience tells me that not everyone is suited for college, and yet we’re promoting it to no end. If you don’t make the cut, you don’t play. If you do make the cut, expect to deal with what’s ahead. High school may not prepare you for that, but that’s life in the real world, whether you’re a college student or not. I could go on about how today’s kids are coddled (I was brought up in that generation), but that’s for another day. College isn’t about parties, whining about paying higher tuition, and avoiding work; it’s about hard work, using and opening your mind, paying now to reap larger benefits later (hopefully), and establishing a foundation for your future.

Also, students need to realize that they benefit from the relatively low cost of their education. Earning a bachelor’s degree at a UW school is still far cheaper than earning one at a private university. Furthermore, remaining in Wisconsin means that they benefit from all kinds of services that aren’t available in other states. Although this state is known for its public funding of services, this fact is usually missed in many statistics about the high amount of taxes and fees paid in Wisconsin. Those taxes subsidize UW System students’ education. So the next time I hear a student whine about his or her tuition going up, I’m going to give them my tax bill.