Response to Chancellor Update: Charting Our Future

While the Chancellor’s campus email was welcome for its transparency regarding administrative planning, AAUP finds it important to include arguments that analyze UWM’s challenges in a different way. The following is a point-by-point response that reaches slightly different conclusions regarding the state of affairs

Demographic Shifts

With the graying of the baby boomers, there is no doubt about the large demographic shift taking place in the United States. While people 65 years and older constituted only 15 percent of the population in 2016, they are projected to constitute 21 percent by 2030 and 23 percent by 2060 (census.gov). Comparatively, children under 18 years will grow in absolute numbers but their portion in the population may decrease; e.g., 22 percent (73.6m) in 2016 to about 21 percent (75.4m) in 2030.

For higher education, however, absolute numbers of younger groups matter more than their ratio in the total population. As academic institutions, it is important for us to be specific and precise, and thus, consider Wisconsin’s actual numbers, not national and regional projections that can always turn out to be otherwise:

The following are the actual enrollment numbers of 12th graders in Wisconsin (WISEdash) compared with UWM’s freshmen enrollments. It’s important to base our current policies not simply on general projections from one source (Nathan Grawe’s book) but actual Wisconsin data. We do not want to find ourselves barking up the wrong tree while addressing an issue.

YearWisc. 12th Grd EnrollmentUWM new frosh fall headcount
WIsconsin Resident Total

These data may have small inaccuracies but it’s clear that the recent decline in UWM’s Wisconsin resident students doesn’t directly correlate with “fewer college-aged students resulting in declining enrollments.” The number of college-aged students in Wisconsin may have seen a drop 8-10 years ago but since 2014 their number has actually been inching up while our enrollments have been inching down. The decline may have other immediate possible causes, such as UW system’s support for Madison’s increased in-state enrollments. The larger context suggests that enrollment declines are disproportionately impacting smaller schools, and a university like UWM, if properly led, should not lose this competition for enrollments.

Cost of Higher Education

The cost of higher education and student debt are definitely of major national concern. UWM can take the lead by joining other universities in advocating a drastic increase in federal and state funding based on existing research.

Yet UWM is one of the least expensive universities in the region. Ideally, this should allow us to recruit more students, not fewer. Therefore, it is likely that, like the demographic shift, our competitive weakness relative to others may not be due to the expense of education.

Public questioning of the value of a college degree

While the public has every right to question the growing costs of higher education (though, UWM is not part of that constellation), no one questions the importance of higher education as a public good. Indeed, the importance of a college degree is only growing. “By 2027, total undergraduate enrollment is projected to increase to 17.4 million students. In fall 2016, total undergraduate enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions was 16.9 million students, an increase of 28 percent from 2000, when enrollment was 13.2 million students” (https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cha.asp). It’s counter-productive to relay dubious claims about the college degree. As the institutional make-up of world society grows in complexity, the need for higher education should grow correspondingly. A population that doesn’t understand how the world works cannot help the world work better.

Employers, Skills, and the Purposes of Higher Education

There are two important reasons why AAUP thinks it’s dangerous to try to closely align education with employer expectations.

First, the academy has always been responding to the stimulations from the world outside. UWM just approved a new major in environmental engineering because of its growing importance in the world. These academic responses have been organic in nature. Because the collective intelligence of research faculty in the country is far greater than the collective intelligence of a small set of college administrators, it is important for administrators not to chase every new industry or skill in search of satisfying local or regional employers. It’s not the computer industry that gave rise to computer science, it is academic computer science that gave rise to the computer industry, starting with the proposal by Gottfried Leibniz, a seventeenth-century philosopher and mathematician, to build machines for valid inferences through a “calculus of reason” (calculus ratiocinator). One can apply the same logic to nuclear and genetic industries. Academic disciplines forge new paths through an internal dynamic while receiving stimulations from the outside world. It’s important for college administrators not to start betting on new industries and future job markets, and start meddling with the organic movement of academic disciplines. Let’s give our students fundamental principles and foundational skills from computer science to communication so that they become capable of learning new programming languages and new media platforms on their own, as and when needed.

Second, the skills gap argument—that there is a gap between the skills job seekers currently have and the skills employers need—has been debunked by many studies in economics and education. Some skills gap is unavoidable under the best of conditions, as some positions will always remain unfilled even while some workers are unemployed. However, “the belief that America suffers from a severe ‘skills gap,’ economist Paul Krugman writes, is…an idea that should have been killed by evidence, but refuses to die.” Were there an actual skills gap, one would witness a rise in wages in those areas, but no such wage increase is taking place.

Growing competition in higher education and low-cost models

Competition in higher education is a reality. But it’s important for UWM to know the category in which it is competing. Chasing everything, from lower-cost models to new curriculum delivery modes, may not be the answer. We are delivering lower-cost education with online programs already in place. We can capitalize on those strengths but UWM must also figure out who its competitors are. Are community colleges, for-profit colleges, or MOOCs our competitors? AAUP views none of these players as UWM’s competitors.