We have just released a new report from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab on state funding for higher education. As you know there’s a lot of concern about state spending on public higher education declining over time, and tuition growing. However, missing from this conversation and most policy proposals is the fact that state cuts to higher education funding have not been equally distributed among higher education institutions. This issue — which colleges and universities receive what funds — is a common topic in K-12 education finance but is often neglected in higher education.
An example from our report: In 2012–13, Wisconsin provided the University of Wisconsin-Madison with approximately $12,410 per full-time-equivalent student (FTE), whereas it provided $5,157 per FTE to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and just $3,211 per FTE to the two-year branch campuses.
Differentiated state spending among higher education institutions is nothing new. Some legislators and college leaders argue these differences are appropriate and justified due to variations in the quantity and quality of education and related services offered to students. But let’s be honest — the differences in magnitude and distribution of the Wisconsin’s expenditures among in-state institutions raises red flags. While a case might be made that flagship institutions, like the University of Wisconsin-Madison, might require additional funding to maintain its core functions, over and above the statewide average, the opposite case could be made for institutions such as the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which serves a greater share of first-time college students and students from less-advantaged academic background that, arguably, may require more intensive academic supports and services to complete college. We are also concerned that institutions already operating at the margin have less capacity to buffer students and families from reductions in state funding.
The Wisconsin HOPE Lab aims to stimulate a new conversation about state support for higher education — one that is more squarely focused on cost-effective allocations of resources. We will be pursuing a new line of research in this area and hosting additional gatherings to deepen the conversation. We hope you’ll join us.
(This blog benefitted from thinking and writing with Tammy Kolbe, professor at the University of Vermont. Look for more from us soon.)