Wisconsin Higher Education Policy Issues for 2013

2013 marks a potential benchmark year for state higher education policy debates. More tends to happen in odd-numbered years because politicians are farther away from elections and more willing to make difficult budget decisions—and the influx of federal stimulus dollars is rapidly drying up. In Wisconsin, 2013 is a particularly important year as discussions begin on the state’s biennial budget. The American Association of State Colleges and Universities, an association representing primarily non-flagship public four-year schools, has released its list of the top ten state policy issues for 2013. They are the following:

(1)    Increasing college performance

(2)    Funding for public colleges and universities

(3)    Tuition prices and policy

(4)    State grant aid programs

(5)    Academic preparation for college

(6)    Immigration policy

(7)    Competency-based education

(8)    Concealed carry on campus

(9)    Workforce/economic development

(10) For-profit college regulation

Not all of these issues are a major concern in Wisconsin (such as whether to grant in-state concern to illegal immigrants who graduated from a Wisconsin public high school), are particularly relevant to student success (such as concealed carry regulations), or are likely to change much (tuition policy). My take on the five most important issues facing the Wisconsin Legislature in 2013 are the following:

Priority #1: Workforce and economic development

Although many in the academic community might disagree with how I have these key issues ordered, the Legislature is clearly focused on workforce and economic development. I expect a focus on vocational and technical education in 2013, as outlined in an August 2012 report by Tim Sullivan, special consultant on economic, workforce, and education development. I’ve written about this report in a previous blog post; overall, the key points in the proposal are reasonable, as long as the Legislature doesn’t go off on a tangent regarding immigration policy or setting unreasonable expectations.

Priority #2: Increasing college performance

Legislation was passed in the previous session that required colleges to make certain accountability information public. (I analyzed UW-Madison’s 2012 report in a post last August.) This legislation didn’t really have any teeth in terms of changing a university’s funding level. This looks very likely to change in 2013, as performance-based funding is going to be a key point of discussion. As Gov. Walker outlined in a speech last fall, he is pushing for some of the higher education funding to be based on a college’s performance in key areas, such as graduation rates and possibly enrolling Pell Grant recipients. I’ll have much more to say about performance-based funding in future blog posts, but for now I will emphasize the importance of using some sort of value-added measure as part of the performance score. (I’ve written quite a bit on this in the past, as well.)

Priority #3: Competency-based education

Wisconsin has become a leader in competency-based education in specialized degree programs, allowing students to earn credit for prior knowledge in certain areas. Unlike some states, which are contracting with the not-for-profit Western Governors University, Wisconsin is doing their effort in-house through the University of Wisconsin System. This experiment will be watched closely around the nation to see whether students take up the program in meaningful numbers as well as whether it will be cost-effective.

Priority #4: State grant aid programs

In 2012, the Legislature tasked the Higher Education Aids Board, the state’s agency administering need-based and merit-based grant programs, with exploring ways to consolidate and modernize the state’s financial aid system. The report, released in December, failed to suggest any meaningful changes that would help ensure a more reasonable distribution of financial aid to students. I hope that the Legislature will reconsider ways to reduce the number of separate need-based grants in order to have a more streamlined and student-friendly aid system, but I am not terribly optimistic.

Priority #5: Funding for public colleges and universities

After several rough budget cycles, Wisconsin looks to be in reasonable fiscal health entering the 2013-15 biennium. As such, Wisconsin higher education is requesting a funding increase over the 2011-13 cycle. The University of Wisconsin System is requesting a $224 million increase (1.9%), while the Wisconsin Technical College System is requesting an additional $92 million (a 31.6% increase). Most of the requested increases for the UW System are designated for meeting the accountability goals, while most of WTCS’s requested increases are designated for meeting workforce shortages in high-demand occupations. These requested increases show the importance of the top two priorities on my list to Wisconsin legislators.


I expect 2013 to be a much calmer year in Wisconsin politics than the past several years, but no less important to the higher education community. Hopefully, the state will continue to make progress in meeting key performance goals and fostering student success.

Author: Robert

I am an a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

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