By Tom Still
MADISON – Wisconsin lawmakers are debating a mixed bag of bills aimed at curbing how much debt college students shoulder once they graduate, a worthy bipartisan cause as the Legislature wraps up its work for this session.
The best fix, however, may also be the simplest in concept: Reduce the time needed to graduate.
The true cost of attending a four-year college or university is measured by how many years students pay for tuition, fees, books, supplies, housing, meals, transportation and other expenses that come with the experience. In fact, tuition is less than half of the total cost on most public campuses and usually less than 40 percent of the total.
The problem for many students is that attending a four-year college or university is often not a four-year deal. It’s more like five or six, according to statistics nationally and in Wisconsin, especially for public universities.
It only stands to reason that if you’re attending college for five or six years, you’re more likely to run short on money and high on debt. That’s why strategizing to shorten the time to graduate must become a part of the equation.
According to a 2013 report from the Chronicle of Higher Education, only 28.7 percent of the students in Wisconsin’s public universities (the University of Wisconsin System) graduated in four years and 59.3 percent in six years. The rest dropped out altogether or took time off, perhaps to resume their studies later or pursue a job.
The UW-Madison led the way with a 55 percent graduation rate in four years and 82.8 percent in six years, with UW-La Crosse and UW-Eau Claire placing second and third, respectively.
Wisconsin ranked 17th best among the 50 states in public university graduation rates, which compared to neighboring Iowa (4th), Michigan (12th), Illinois (13th), Minnesota (19th) and Indiana (25th).
What’s striking is how much better private colleges and universities rank in speed to graduate, in Wisconsin as well as nationally.
In Wisconsin, the leaders in the four-year graduation rate are Beloit College, St. Norbert College, Marquette University, Lawrence University and Ripon College, according to a 2013 report by The College Board. Most are 60 percent or higher. The trend is much the same nationally, based on reports by The College Board and U.S. News & World Report.
“The four-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time students who began and stayed at a private, non-profit college or university is 68 percent higher than the rate for students on public campuses,” reports the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. “This enables graduates to pay less tuition and to start earning sooner.”
It also enables them to rack up less debt and pay it off sooner. Learning how private universities and colleges churn out quality graduates faster should be a priority for lawmakers and the UW System, which could embrace some private school practices.
Other strategies should begin before students ever step foot on a college campus. Wisconsin is among the top dozen states nationally in offering Advanced Placement courses and examinations to high school students, who may earn college credit, advanced standing or both if they score well on the tests. The number of AP exams taken in 2015 was the highest ever in Wisconsin, which may help speed college graduations in coming years.
And yet, Wisconsin has room for improvement. Seamless transitions between secondary and post-secondary institutions cut the time needed to earn a degree and enhance student learning. The state has enacted two programs – Youth Options and Course Options – which enable students to earn college credits while still in high school. The intention of the Legislature in enacting these programs was to exempt the student from the burden of paying.
However, the programs were structured in a way that created a financial disincentive for school districts to participate, so the full promise of these programs has yet to be met. Parallel programs in Minnesota, which are funded by the state rather than the local district, are producing results far outstripping those in Wisconsin.
If you spend four years earning a four-year degree, you’ll pay less – and probably incur a lot less debt – than taking five or six years to accomplish the same thing. It’s simple math that should be a part of the college cost and debt debate in Wisconsin.