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Chancellor's FYI, February 2004.

The Morrill of this story?
America needs big ideas, higher ed


A few weeks ago I took part in a gathering of fifteen chancellors and presidents from around the country.
   It was a meeting of the policy committee of The American Association of State Colleges and Universities — UWGB’s national trade association, so to speak. We meet periodically to strategize major issues. This last session sharpened my thinking on a question I promised to explore here in more detail: the political horse races that are gathering intensity and how higher education fits into the handicapping.
    As we think about the direction of our state and national politics, and as Wisconsin’s Feb. 17 presidential primary approaches, where does higher education fit in the political picture?
    Sadly, we have become a target. Clearly that is the case in the U.S. Congress. The issues are costs, transfer of credits, accreditation and accountability.
    Now, those who allege all universities are deficient in these areas would find their arguments refuted at UW-Green Bay. Seamless transfer and accountability have long been priorities. On accreditation, I could elaborate on both its good and its genuinely bad points. But let’s focus solely upon the biggest issue in the current national debate: costs.
    A proposal before Congress would severely penalize any university that raised tuition at a rate greater than inflation.
    Make sense? No, not at all. And not because greedy universities want more money from students and their families, but because the facts point elsewhere.
    I recently asked to see fifteen years of “cost per student” data for UWGB. Here’s what I found. In constant dollar terms, we educate today’s student for $12 less per student than was the case fifteen years ago. And, in that time, we have added much value:
• emphasizing learning (results) instead of teaching (inputs);
• adding high-tech labs;
• investing huge amounts in keeping computers and software up-to-date;
• expanding the learning environment to include many more opportunities outside the classroom;

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• transforming a “commuter and suitcase campus” to one that meets the expectations of our customers seeking a residential experience; and
• providing orientation and support services that are, today, paying off in terms of retention and academic success rates the likes of which our University (and almost all other publics) have never seen.
    How did we do that while keeping costs constant? By becoming more efficient in our teaching, in our business functions and on down the line. Today, using standard, federally mandated reporting categories, the UW System is the most efficient system in the nation.
    Why all the hoopla, then, about costs? Because of confusion of “price” and “cost.” Tuition has skyrocketed even as costs have remained constant.
    How does that happen? Nationally, the public’s large but declining investment in higher education has slipped below the tipping point. In Wisconsin, the share of instructional costs covered by the state has dropped from 50% to 27%. The gap has been filled by students and their families, by increases in efficiency, and, frankly, by faculty and staff salaries being kept below those of peer institutions.
    So, as you run into grandstanding from those who would try to bamboozle by confusing cost and price, please keep the distinction clear. Call them on it. Seems like the ones who created the problem — disinvesting in your public higher education — may be the same ones that would now like to convince you that higher education is the culprit. Let’s not let them get away with that.
    And, that brings me back to the strategy session with my 14 public-institution colleagues, and the fact that it is much more exciting, and important, to fight for a vision rather than to fight defensively.
    What is the vision we should fight for? Our group found inspiration in recalling two historic high-water marks in American public higher education: the Morrill Act and the GI Bill.
    The Morrill Act of 1862, passed by a fiscally broke nation emerging from an unimaginably draining civil war, created the land grant university system that, even today, is envied around the world. The GI Bill of 1944 sent hundreds of thousands to college, redefined what it meant to be appropriately educated, and fundamentally transformed this nation for the better.

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