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.

MPA Program at UWM

The Masters of Public Administration at UWM has been one of the most rewarding programs I have had the pleasure of being a part of. I would like to take this opportunity to describe to you how this program offers students more than just a masters degree.

When I began the program in the Fall of 1998, I was somewhat overwhelmed at the idea of actually working towards a masters degree in a field that really interested me. There were some new professors, new students, and new ideas and concepts. It seemed like there was more work and more time that would have to be divulged into working for this degree. But I also noticed that some of the instructors and professors teaching us had practical experience in the field, and they were able to bring this into the course structure as well. Two classes that stand out are Municipal Management and Bureaucratic Theory.

The following Spring, I took a course in Policy Analysis. I was surprised to learn that the professor teaching this was at one time a legislator. Since this was a class on policy analysis, I learned that an actual policy maker (former Wisconsin State legislator) made the ideal instructor for this course. And taking a course in Intergovernmental Relations with a professor who specialized in the field made that class more worthwhile also.

The following Fall, I took a course in Physical Planning and Municipal Engineering. This was not a class taught through the Masters of Public Administration Department, but rather, it was a class that was taught through the Engineering Department. There was so much work that was involved, but the professor kept the class interesting, the material was really exciting, and the work really paid off. If anyone has an option to take this course, don’t even hesitate for a second… go for it! The following semester, I took a course in learning what a Geographical Information System (GIS) does. Another “hands-on” class, I learned how to really articulate my analytical and technical skills. What really surprised me were the students that sat in this class, which included business, geography, architecture, and even an engineering student. I would definitely recommend this class.

The bottom line is that the MPA program at UWM offers more than just your basic classes. They offer classes that are hands-on, classes that are not only informative but also intriguing, and instructors that show a genuine concern about their students. This last item, concern for students, is another thing I really want to discuss.

As an undergraduate student at UWM, I earned my Bachelors of Arts in Political Science. As a student in that program, I became a member of Pi Sigma Alpha, and was involved in the Epsilon Chi chapter at UWM. I even spent a semester as chapter secretary. But all we did was hold one big event in the Spring, and we had a recognition luncheon. Beyond that, I only saw my fellow students in class, assuming I shared the same classes. But it was different when I went to that first orientation for the Masters of Public Administration.

One of the big things that impressed me with the orientation was the commitment the faculty showed for the students that were in this program. They wanted to begin a student organization for those of us who were interested in public administration. This became the Public Administration Student Society (PASS). What was unique about this was that it was open to students who were interested in public administration, not just those that were in the program (although anyone in the program was automatically a member with voting privileges). As PASS progressed through the first year, we saw minimum participation. Many of us were very discouraged.

PASS’ second year saw a change in leadership. In the first year, many of the officers were involved in many other things, making it difficult for them to put forth much commitment into the program. As charter officer and secretary, I had more time to devote to PASS, since I did not have the various work-related obligations my fellow officers had. I became president in Winter 2000, and the new officers that were elected showed much more commitment and enthusiasm to helping this organization really move forward.

This past year, we have had a panel discussion with professionals from the field of public administration to help students work on getting their first jobs, and our Spring orientation was successful, with three alumni that came and spoke to us about opportunities and lessons in public administration, and what their degree helped them to achieve. We’ve also had some fun activities, such as attending a Brewers game, complete with (what else?) a tailgate party, and we’ve spent time meeting professorial candidates for the MPA program. And in July, we will join the Milwaukee Chapter of the American Society for Public Administration to tour the Milwaukee River on the Edelweiss Cruise.

What are the ingredients to a successful organization such as ours? First of all, you have a group of students who are concerned about this field. Let’s face it, we’re working on this degree because it is related to a field in which we will spend our lives working in. And a masters degree requires so much more commitment than a bachelors degree. Furthermore, the officers have goals for the events as well as the organization as a whole. Their commitment and time has really been a key factor in helping to propel this organization.

Finally, we have had support from the professors and staff. Our director has a genuine concern for the students, and he has been an important contact for all of our events. He continues to ask for student participation at many of these events, as well as other events that will help us continue to grow. Other professors in the program have also been very helpful in distributing materials and attending many of our functions. And now that we have support from a professional organization, we have the ability to network with the finest members of the field of public administration, including administrators in municipal government, state government, and non-profit organizations.

In conclusion, I just want to say that I am grateful to all of those that I have had the pleasure of knowing through the Masters of Public Administration, including students, faculty, and professionals. I know that other students will also have the opportunities I’ve had in this program to really get a true feeling about what public administration is all about. Anyone who joins this program will have many wonderful experiences in the time they spend at UWM, and these experiences will help them over time in the field of public administration.