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Blank to Regents: New investment needed to maintain high quality

February 2, 2017 By Greg Bump
UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blanks speaks to the UW System Board of Regents Thursday at Union South.

UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank speaks to the UW System Board of Regents Thursday at Union South. Photo: Jeff Miller

The University of Wisconsin–Madison has maintained high quality in education and research, but further efforts, including new state investment and flexibilities that will allow campus to act entrepreneurially, are essential to securing continued excellence in the future, Chancellor Rebecca Blank told the UW System Board of Regents.

“I am very encouraged by the things the governor and legislators have been talking about in terms of reinvesting in the UW, and I’m hopeful that we can all work together to change some of these worrisome trends,” Blank said during the Board of Regents meeting Thursday at Union South.

Many of the benchmarks the university watches are promising, she said. Demand to attend UW–Madison is at an all-time high: The campus this year welcomed its largest freshman class ever; and applications have hit record highs four years in a row. That includes applications for fall 2017, which rose 8 percent from the previous year, Blank said. Part of the reason for the most recent increase is likely the university’s adoption of the Common App, she said.

Providing access to UW–Madison for in-state students and recruiting the best Wisconsin students is a top priority, Blank said. A new campaign launched this year called PRIME targets high-achieving Wisconsin high school students who might be recruited by out-of-state institutions. The campaign uses a variety of social media and other channels and provides full funding for all students who are eligible for Pell Grants.

Once the students arrive, Blank said the university emphasizes giving them a complete Wisconsin Experience, in and out of the classroom. UW–Madison’s study abroad program is among the 10 best in the nation, with close to 30 percent of students participating in study abroad programs. A record number of students are doing public service with 90 community partners. Two-thirds of UW–Madison students take part in an internship, with 70 percent of those at Wisconsin businesses. New this year is a partnership with the Career Kickstart program to connect students with volunteer opportunities aligned with their career interests. An expanded Career Exploration Center, aimed at offering improved career services to undergraduates, opened this semester, and Money Magazine this month ranked UW–Madison as one of the top five for career services among public schools in the nation.

“What are the educational outcomes from these efforts?” Blank asked. “We’re as good or better than most other big public flagship universities.”

The combination of outstanding academics and out-of-class offerings is contributing to a record student retention rate, Blank said. In fall 2016, the retention rate to second year for students entering as freshman in 2015 was 95.4 percent, including a retention rate of 95.7 percent for freshmen in targeted minority populations.

Blank said the figures show the university is closing the opportunity gap. “We worked hard on this one,” she said.

The average student completes an undergraduate degree at UW–Madison in 4.07 years, Blank said, with the six-year graduation rate for all students at 85.2 percent.

Students and faculty have continued winning top national awards, including four Goldwater Scholars, a Marshall scholar, and a team of students who won the SpaceX Innovation Award.

The challenges ahead

 While there is plenty of good news, there is also cause for some concern. “We have maintained excellent outcomes in many areas, but higher education is extremely competitive today,” Blank said.

She noted that in 2015, for the first time since 1972, UW–Madison dropped out of the top five ranking for university research expenditures, falling from fourth in the nation the previous year to sixth. Over the last 10 years, the dollars UW–Madison has brought into the state for research and development increased by 2 percent per year, while research and development among the other top 25 schools grew by almost 4 percent.

Blank said the reason for the decline is twofold: First, when other schools recruit our faculty, they take the very best, along with their research grants. Second, the university hasn’t had resources to invest in new research areas as much as our competitors – the last round of cluster hires was 14 years ago, Blank said.

“This is something we’ve got to turn around,” she said.

UW-Madison is one of the most efficient campuses among Big Ten public schools, with just 3.5 percent of overall expenses going to institutional support. But Blank said there has been a growing investment gap in the last 10 years between UW–Madison and its peers. The annual rate of growth at UW–Madison has been 2.6 percent over that span, while its peers, on average, have grown by 4.2 percent annually, a 60 percent faster growth rate.

“Some of you run companies,” Blank said to the Regents. “You know that if you don’t invest as much as your competitors, you will fall behind.”

Blank expressed gratitude for the Regents’ budget request, which includes funding for capital projects and a compensation request for employees, as well as increased scholarship aid. She said she is encouraged by the governor’s pledge to make up for a tuition cut with additional state investment, as well as additional funding for the UW System beyond that.

However, in addition to greater reinvestment from the state, Blank said the university needs to be more entrepreneurial. UW–Madison has a five-part strategy to grow its own revenues, she said, including an expansion of summer semester course offerings. Last summer saw an increase of more than 1,100 students and 21 percent jump in revenue over the previous year, she said. Other parts of the revenue strategy include growth in professional and capstone programs, bringing tuition for professional schools and out-of-state students up to market rates, an aggressive alumni fundraising campaign, and efforts to capture more research funding.

New investment would need to be invested wisely, she said, like hiring faculty in areas of growing student demand, such as business, engineering and nursing. Also, the university needs to improve compensation to faculty – full professors at UW–Madison make 12.4 percent less than professors at peer institutions, she said.

She also called for investment in innovative educational technologies to more effectively serve students on campus and online, and to increase access and affordability by expanding financial aid to more low- and middle-income students.

“It is our job to be entrepreneurial and to build revenues in areas where we have leverage. But we can’t do this alone,” Blank said. “For 169 years, we have been in partnership with the state.  We are doing everything we can to generate resources and we need the state to join us in that effort.”

Badger Promise

Chancellor Blank also announced two new efforts to help ensure the university is accessible and affordable to transfer students from across the state.

Updated transfer contracts between the 14 two-year UW Campuses and UW–Madison have just been completed to help UW Colleges students attend UW–Madison to finish their bachelor’s degree. A similar plan is moving forward for students in liberal arts transfer programs at four technical colleges: Madison College, Milwaukee Area Technical College, Nicolet College, and the College of Menominee Nation.

In addition, if UW–Madison receives sufficient new investment in the 2017-19 biennial budget, Blank said she is committed to guaranteeing at least one year tuition free for first-generation Wisconsin students transferring under the updated transfer agreement (that is, for students neither of whose parents have a four-year degree). Under the proposed Badger First-Generation Transfer Promise program, any first-generation Wisconsin resident student entering under the Badger Promise would receive grants that cover at least one year of tuition at UW–Madison. Those who are Pell Grant eligible would have two full years of tuition covered.

Blank said in the most recent year, all Wisconsin resident first-generation transfers into UW–Madison had unmet financial aid need and were three times more likely to come from low-income families than other students.

“I want to bring a world-class education into reach for more first-generation Wisconsin students,” Blank said.

Read more about the Badger Promise.