By Tom Still

MADISON – It would be a mistake to believe higher education’s financial woes in Wisconsin began the day Gov. Scott Walker took office in 2011.

As the bipartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau noted in 2015, all but one state budget since 2003 “included significant (general tax revenue) reductions for the UW System.” The running total now approaches $1 billion, nearly half of which was cut during a Democratic administration.

It would also be wrong to think Wisconsin policymakers have been alone in reducing support for higher education.

In fact, only three of 50 states are spending as much per student today as they did before the Great Recession. Wisconsin spent 16.5 percent less in inflation-adjusted terms from 2008 through 2015, according to the national Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Even with those qualifiers in mind, it’s time for state policymakers to stand back and consider how another round of cuts would harm one of higher education’s core products – its contribution to the state economy.

That’s the conclusion reached by the Wisconsin Technology Council in its latest report, “The Value of Higher Education to Wisconsin’s Economy.” The 28-page report was written by the independent, bipartisan Tech Council, which includes about 40 private-sector leaders among its 50 members.

The report examines the role of Wisconsin’s public and private colleges and universities in producing workforce talent, intellectual property and economic activity, which includes one of the nation’s most robust private supply chains for supporting research and development.

It recommends building on those assets in ways that range from easing student debt burdens to speeding the flow of ideas from the laboratory bench to the marketplace. The report urges policymakers to refrain from further budget cuts for higher education, as such reductions would “harm access, affect overall quality and erode economic competitiveness.” Major recommendations are:

  • In making funding and programming choices, policymakers should compare UW-Madison with its national peers (the nation’s top 25 research and development universities) and UW-Milwaukee with its peer institutions (about 20 urban research universities).
  • Examine ways to speed time to graduation, which varies greatly within the UW System. Strategies include improving portability of credits, accelerating programs that help high-school students get a “head start” on college and embracing best practices at Wisconsin’s private colleges and universities.
  • Support faculty tenure policies developed by the UW Board of Regents and its Tenure Policy study group.
  • Improve the efficiency of campus interactions with the business community.
  • Encourage the UW Foundation and similar foundations with ties to the UW to investigate “mission investing” as a part of their portfolio management strategies.
  • Ensure that “front-door” business portals such as the UW-Madison Office of Corporate Relations exist on each of the four-year campuses.
  • Appoint a blue-ribbon commission to consider questions related to UW System general-purpose revenue funding; administrative flexibility; campus consolidation; tuition freezes; supporting a “second” research university; supporting research and technology transfer on non-doctoral campuses, and how to get the most out of two-year campuses that make up the separate Wisconsin Technical College System and the UW System’s two-year centers.

The economic impact of higher education in the state is enormous, not only in producing talent for employers and resources for many types of businesses, but in redistributing R&D dollars. Wisconsin has a dense supply chain of vendors who work with academic researchers after they land major grants, and much of that money is put to work statewide.

“One of the things that makes Wisconsin attractive to researchers elsewhere is its infrastructure of research-oriented firms in the private sector,” said Jason Owen-Smith, executive director of the Institute for Research on Innovation and Science at the University of Michigan.

The report comes at a time when the conversation around higher education in Wisconsin is intense, with faculty members on some campuses passing “no-confidence” resolutions aimed at the UW Board of Regents and policymakers responding that such votes are indicative of ivory-tower thinking.

What’s needed before the next budget debate is less rhetoric and more reflection on what it means to the Wisconsin economy to boast one of the nation’s best higher education systems. Policymakers should continue to look for efficiencies, but they should also stop the slide in public support before a unique asset becomes run-of-the-mill.