Gov. Scott Walker signed the state budget on Thursday last week, securing an extra $100 million in funding for the University of Wisconsin System.
It’s the first budget in a while that hasn’t cut UW funding, and Rebecca Blank, chancellor of UW-Madison, is happy about that.
“To have a budget that’s really moving forward and giving us a little bit of new revenue ... this is a good place to be,” she said.
Blank appeared on a recent segment of Sunday political talk show “UpFront with Mike Gousha” with UW Colleges and UW Extension Chancellor Cathy Sandeen. The pair weighed in on the budget, a new one-year free tuition program for first generation students and the proposed Foxconn plant, expressing optimism about all three.
Both Sandeen and Blank said they were pleased with the budget, especially in comparison to previous years, and noted salary increases for faculty and staff. The last budget cut UW funding by $250 million.
“I think the state has renewed its support for the university,” Sandeen said.
Host Mike Gousha asked how the pair felt about Walker’s decision to tie funding of UW campuses to performance metrics. Blank said that while it’s “absolutely appropriate for the state to ask us to keep track of our performance ... the devil is always in the details.”
A great deal depends on how the metrics are implemented and how institutions are compared, she said. Because the system provides very different types of educational experiences, not all schools should be compared against each other. Four-year schools should be compared to four-years schools, and two-year schools to two-year school, she said.
Sandeen agreed, saying that a standard national metric is a six year bachelor completion rate, and that doesn’t apply to UW two-year colleges at all.
Another measure in this year’s budget would track the teaching workload of UW System instructors.
“My faculty have a whole variety of different jobs and teaching is only one of them,” Blank said, listing research, outreach and administration as other important tasks.
“If we’re going to monitor workloads, I’ve been very clear that I’m going to look at total workloads,” she said. “You can’t just look at one aspect of their job.”
The segment also looked at the new Badger Promise program, which offers free tuition and fees to Wisconsin transfer students who are the first in their family to attain a four-year degree. This fall, 139 students began the program.
First generation students often have good reasons to start at two-year schools, Blank said, and the program helps them make an affordable transition to a four-year degree.
The program helps two-years students realize their “dream of a University of Wisconsin degree.”
Sandeen said that 58 percent of UW Colleges students are first generation students, with 30 percent classified as low-income and 81 percent working while they’re going to school.
“This is just remarkable, and I know it will motivate our current students and many more students,” Sandeen said.
Sandeen said students who transfer from UW colleges to UW-Madison have the same graduation rate as students who enter as freshman.
Blank acknowledged that there are other costs associated with college, like room and board. But she said some students are local and will be able to live at home, and with other scholarships, loans and jobs, “students will be able to finish at UW-Madison,” she said.
Gousha asked how a program like this can be sustained financially in the long term. Blank said that because the state “is not going to be a major increased funder for us in the future,” the university is working on expanding programs that bring in revenue, like its summer semester and professional programs that provide licensing and certificates.
“I’m pretty confident that we can keep this program running,” she said.
Gousha asked Blank and Sandeen to comment on Taiwanese LCD manufacturer Foxconn’s plans to build a plan in Wisconsin. The state's incentive package for the company was recently signed into law.
“There’s no question in my mind that a big employer like Foxconn coming to Wisconsin is good for the state,” Blank said.
Foxconn will create job opportunities for students and research partnership opportunities for the school.
“Our opportunities to help companies stay on the cutting edge ... is one of the reasons I suspect Foxconn wants to be in Wisconsin,” she said.
Blank added that good job opportunities at Foxconn could help keep out-of-state students in Wisconsin after graduation.
Sandeen said that Foxconn means the UW system needs to “ramp up” efforts to quickly train students to enter the workforce, especially as the state is already confronting a worker shortage.
“We need to get more students into our system, get them out fast and working productively, supporting our economy,” she said.