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Chris Rickert is the urban affairs reporter and SOS columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal.

UW and Scott Walker

Jeff Steele, an academic staff member at UW-Madison, holds a sign during the 2015 "Stop the Cuts -- Save UW" rally held on Library Mall in Madison. The rally was in part to protest a proposed $300 million cut to the UW System.

Gripe if you must, UW System officials, for you have at least a few legitimate things to gripe about, including $600 million in cuts to state aid since 2011 and overly sensitive white Republican lawmakers who have a problem with courses like “The Problem of Whiteness” and take out their frustration by threatening to cut university funding yet again.

But whatever Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans’ sins against higher ed, managing to reduce in-state undergrad tuition would be a big deal. It can be hard to remember that before a GOP tuition freeze in 2013, the System had for years been raising tuition by well above the rate of inflation. In an era of skyrocketing college costs and student debt, no one is going to complain about a tuition reduction.

Where Walker’s political instincts veer into the absurd, though, is in his suggestion that System funding should be tied to how many System graduates find jobs in Wisconsin.

Making taxpayer funding for public higher ed contingent on how many students stay in college, graduate or have other positive outcomes is known as performance-based funding, or PBF, and has become increasingly popular in other states.

Walker has said student graduation rates and how long it takes students to get degrees could also be metrics for doling out state money, and at first blush, adding the rate at which grads get jobs in the state to this list makes sense.

The baby boomers are retiring, after all, and the average age of Wisconsinites is relatively high. Everybody agrees the state needs more younger workers, preferably with expertise in technology because that’s where the economy is headed and that’s where the money is.

There are two problems with making UW funding contingent on the in-state employment rate of UW grads, though. Although the researchers I heard from weren’t aware of any other state to use the in-state employment metric, there is scant evidence PBF works with other metrics.

A 2013 policy brief from the UW-Madison-based Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education found that PBF “has not been significantly effective for increasing associate or baccalaureate degree completions in performance funding states, and it may even have had negative effects in some states.”

Another study last year by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University found: “We do not have as yet conclusive evidence that performance funding does indeed improve student outcomes in any significant way.”

Granted, much of the research is done by, well, those in publicly funded academia who might not like the idea of having to prove their students are doing well in order to get more taxpayer dollars.

But if you believe most mainstream academic researchers are straight-shooters interested in the truth — and I do — then their research is no endorsement of PBF. Private foundations including the Lumina Foundation and the Center for American Progress that clearly have hopes for PBF also aren’t yet willing to conclude that it works.

The second problem is that of all the states intelligent, entreprenuerial, tech-savvy millennial UW graduates could chose to set down roots, why would Wisconsin be their first, or even their 40th, choice?

There is no shortage of reasons why Wisconsin is a great place to live, but one of them is not that it’s a state with a lot of entrepreneurial activity. It’s been ranked last in startup activity two years running by the Kauffman Foundation and it’s lagged the rest of the country and some neighboring states in job creation.

For the most part, these are not the fault of Walker or the other Republicans, although Walker did turn down $23 million in federal funding to expand broadband access and Republicans have made supporting more legacy types of business development, such as mining, a priority.

Other reasons smart millennials might not want to live in Wisconsin are entirely the fault of the GOP.

This is a generation of people that doesn’t care whether two people of the same sex get married or what bathroom a person uses, and yet the state’s Republicans fought for the state’s gay marriage ban all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Republican state Rep. Jesse Kremer is again saying he’ll introduce a bill to restrict where transgender people can relieve themselves.

Millennials are also increasingly less likely to hunt and fish but increasingly more likely to hike, rock-climb and enjoy nature in other ways. And while Wisconsin has some beautiful nature, Republicans have made the state’s “sporting heritage” a priority while seeking to weaken environmental oversight.

Cutting millions from the System and from K-12 education also can’t look good to smart young people looking to raise families.

And then you’ve got a governor who cozies up to a president-elect who not only lost the popular vote but lost by big margins among people in their 20s, racial minorities and those with college degrees.

Of course, millennials could soon carry the guns they don’t own on UW System campuses, if another Kremer idea gets the OK.

So at least the Badger State would have that going for it.

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Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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