New funding for higher education in Gov. Scott Walker’s state budget proposal would reverse years of cuts and boost University of Wisconsin System schools that have been slashing costs in recent years.
But experts say two changes that System leaders and state lawmakers are considering this year could shrink the share of new funding that winds up at UW-Madison, and instead send more of that money to the System’s other campuses.
UW officials are weighing changes to the formula they use to decide how much state funding each System institution receives. And though officials stress they haven’t made any decisions about those changes, experts expect they will look to shrink the sizeable share of money that now flows to UW-Madison — which receives more funding than the 12 other four-year UW schools combined — and give smaller campuses a larger piece of the funding pie.
Meanwhile, Walker’s plan to tie a $42.5 million increase in higher education spending to how UW campuses perform on certain measures could have a similar effect, because the categories it uses to judge institutions play more to the strength of regional campuses than a research institution such as UW-Madison.
If those changes go forward, UW-Madison could benefit less than other campuses from rising state funding. Some question whether that’s such a bad thing, however, given that other sources of revenue have insulated UW-Madison from more drastic budget cuts.
“We all need more, and I think Milwaukee should get our fair share,” said Rachel Buff, a history professor at UW-Milwaukee who has called for that campus to receive more of the System’s funding. “I don’t think we should be scrapping over the pie, but I do think there should be some equitable apportionment of resources.”
UW-Madison officials say their campus gets more state funding than others in part because it is the only one with professional programs such as the schools of medicine, pharmacy and veterinary medicine. UW System spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis noted UW-Madison also receives money for services such as the state’s hygiene lab and veterinary diagnostics lab, as well as the majority of state-funded research dollars.
UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank has warned generally of a need to increase the Madison campus’ state funding for the university to maintain its position as a research powerhouse.
“We are in conversation with UW System about the resources needed to ensure continued excellence at Wisconsin’s flagship campus,” UW-Madison spokesman John Lucas said.
Changing formula could benefit small campuses
The formula the UW System uses to distribute state funding among its universities is mainly based on their enrollment, another reason UW-Madison is the largest recipient. In the 2016-17 school year, UW-Madison received $436.2 million in state funding — 42 percent of the System’s total appropriation of just more than $1 billion.
A group of UW System officials is now looking into potential changes to that formula, though Marquis declined to say if that would mean diverting money from Madison to other campuses.
“We are internally having discussions about ... how state funds could be distributed to institutions,” Marquis said, “but we have not made any decisions.”
A UW group studied the funding formula in 2014 but did not recommend changes.
This time around, Noel Radomski, executive director of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, said the widely held expectation is that the System will look to increase the share of money that goes to smaller UW campuses, and shrink Madison’s appropriation.
That’s because those smaller campuses, such as UW-Eau Claire and UW-Superior, depend more on state funding than UW-Madison does, Radomski said.
The flagship campus felt the squeeze of recent state cuts, laying off 50 employees and eliminating hundreds of vacant positions after lawmakers reduced funding for the System by $250 million in the 2015-17 budget.
But UW-Madison has revenue sources other UW campuses don’t have, such as the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, a large donor base and tuition revenue from growing numbers of international and non-resident students, all of which helped lessen the blow of reduced state funding.
While UW-Madison mainly closed vacant positions, most of the 179 jobs UW-Eau Claire eliminated in cost-cutting efforts had been filled — 98 employees took buyouts, and 11 were laid off. The campus had to contend with both a state funding cut and declining enrollment, which meant the loss of $1.5 million in tuition revenue. Job cuts at UW-Eau Claire, where the student body is about one-fourth the size of Madison’s, represented 15 percent of the university’s workforce.
“At Madison, people retired, people left, but the offices and the lights are still on,” Radomski said. “It’s all relative.”
The UW Board of Regents would have to approve any changes to the funding formula, and Marquis said there is no timeline in place for when the matter could go before the board.
Performance categories also favor regional schools
While funding cuts hit the UW System’s regional campuses harder than they did Madison, those universities could benefit more from the money Walker has proposed putting back into higher education in the next state budget.
That funding is tied to how UW institutions rank against one another in a range of performance metrics, and Dennis Jones, president emeritus of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, noted those categories are geared toward the roles of UW’s smaller, comprehensive campuses.
Metrics include how much time faculty members spend teaching — a figure that might be lower at UW-Madison, where professors balance instruction with research — and none of the categories measure programs for graduate or doctoral education, Jones said.
“This is almost totally an undergraduate set of metrics,” he said. “The things that Madison is primary on ... are essentially irrelevant.”
Jones cautioned it’s too soon to say whether that means Madison won’t benefit as much as other campuses from performance funding. The measures could be changed as Walker’s budget moves through the Legislature, he said, and Madison will likely perform well in several categories, such as those gauging graduation rates and how successful graduates are at finding jobs after school.
Jones and Radomski suggested lawmakers should change the performance categories so that UW’s comprehensive campuses and its research universities, in Madison and Milwaukee, are judged based on their different roles.
Echoing that idea, Lucas said UW-Madison officials plan “to work closely with the Legislature to ensure that any metrics included in the budget account for the different roles and missions of the various campuses around the state.”