By Shereen Siewert

The University of Wisconsin System and its flagship, UW-Madison, are falling behind their peers in key financial metrics, according to a report released Tuesday by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum.

The report points to a tuition freeze, declining enrollment, stagnant state funding and “comparatively lackluster growth in research spending” as factors threatening the university system’s long-term competitiveness.

Additional warning signs, WPF states, include a decline in faculty numbers and lagging research spending.

The report did find some encouraging data points including rising UW student graduation rates and falling student debt levels.

 Years of declines in funding and enrollment, combined with the COVID-19 fallout, threatens to wash away key pieces of the system, raising questions about future faculty cuts or reduced programs, the report states. And the challenges faced by public higher education in Wisconsin are tougher than in most other states, WPF concluded.

The UW System and Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) face the following headwinds, as cited in the Dec. 15 report:

  • As recently as 2010, state tax or General Purpose Revenue funding was the largest source of UW System revenues but it since has been overtaken by both tuition and federal revenues. The UW has fallen from the state’s second-highest GPR program in 1992 to its fifth today. State aid to the WTCS is also down since 2000 after netting out funds for property tax relief.
  • Between 2001 and 2011, in-state undergraduate tuition more than doubled at every four-year UW campus and rose by 141% at UW-Madison. Yet at UW campuses since then in-state undergraduate tuition increases largely have been frozen at 2013 prices.
  • Full-time equivalent enrollments (FTE) at the UW System fell by 8.4% since their 2010 peak to 142,907 in 2019 though they remain above their level in 2000. WTCS FTE enrollments fell 22.5% to 65,317 since topping out in 2011 but are also higher than in 2000.

Unlike some other states, Wisconsin did not take advantage of the long economic expansion to help prepare its colleges and universities for this economic peril.

Further complicating the situation is the coronavirus pandemic, which is upending campus life and adding long-term difficulties. The UW System estimated in June a net loss of $158.6 million at that time and responded by extending employee furloughs and pay cuts.

Read the full report here.