Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:39 pm
I just returned from a rite of passage that is too common for parents of southeastern Wisconsin high school seniors. By this, I mean visits to out-of-state universities made necessary because their soon-to-be graduate believes a quality Wisconsin public college experience is unavailable.
My first visit took me to Virginia, where I toured the campuses of the University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary — two universities that supposedly offer a better undergraduate education than any college in Wisconsin, including the No. 1 party school in the U.S., the University of Wisconsin-Madison. From what I saw and learned, this appears to be true. Moreover, the state of Virginia, which has a population of approximately 7 million, appears to have six other state institutions ranked higher than any college in Wisconsin other than Madison.
Discovering this was a little traumatic, as Wisconsin’s distinction as a high tax state had me believing that it at least produced one of the best university systems in the U.S. Apparently, this is untrue, and I have been asking myself what happened to cause us to fall so far behind that our best and brightest students are increasingly unwilling to consider staying in the state for their college experience.
It is sometimes said that a docile citizenry gets the leadership, or lack thereof, that it deserves. Nowhere is that more true than in southeastern Wisconsin, where the voters have tolerated abysmal political ethics, a paucity of leadership and partisan political turf protection among its government leaders to the severe and ongoing detriment of our local and statewide economy.
Let’s look at some pertinent statistics:
• Wisconsin has a population of 5.5 million and a working population of 3.1 million.
• Southeastern Wisconsin (Ozaukee, Milwaukee, Waukesha, Washington, Racine and Kenosha counties) has a population of 1.9 million and a working population that is 37 percent of the state’s working population.
• Southeastern Wisconsin provides 48 percent of Wisconsin’s total high-tech jobs, 54 percent of its registered patents and 40 percent of its college educated population.
Obviously, southeastern Wisconsin is the economic powerhouse of the state. Therefore, one would assume that it would be the focus of the highest percentage of the state’s investment in university education and research.
Unfortunately, it is not, and the competition between southeastern Wisconsin and Madison for those investment dollars isn’t even close. There is an appalling disconnect between where the government spends these dollars and the area where more constituents live and more businesses and jobs are located.
One of the paramount principles of a government’s investment in higher education and research is to foster a climate that creates ideas that are transformed into businesses. These businesses, in turn, create jobs and distribute wealth to citizens. For example, it has been shown that college graduates earn 85 percent more than non-graduates and thereby contribute more to the state’s economy and tax base. For the investment to pay off, however, the graduates have to either remain in or return to southeastern Wisconsin, assuming they find employment opportunities here.
This chain of events requires that our region be an area of economic growth and job availability. A key link in that chain is an educational and research climate that reflects significant investment and quality results — both in terms of the prestige of southeastern Wisconsin’s largest public university and the talented graduates produced by that institution.
But our government leaders don’t grasp this principle, as the state’s investment in southeastern Wisconsin’s public university (the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) does not even remotely parallel the role of this region in Wisconsin’s economy.
Let’s look at some further statistics that illustrate my point:
• Approximately 50 percent of southeastern Wisconsin’s college students attend private rather than public institutions, as compared to 20 percent for Wisconsin students from non-metro areas. This may be caused by their perception that a quality local public alternative does not exist.
• The total budget for UW-Madison is $2.1 billion vs. $490 million for UWM. Moreover, UWM’s budget is handily eclipsed by the collective $608 million budgets of UW-Eau Claire, UW-Lacrosse, UW-Stout, UW-Stevens Point and UW-River Falls, even though the collective populations of the west central areas are not even close to that of southeastern Wisconsin.
• UW-Madison spends $857 million on research, while UWM only spends $45 million. In contrast, UW-Madison spends $428 million on actual instruction, while UWM spends $137 million. Yes, UW-Madison spends twice as much on research than on instruction.
• Despite UW-Madison’s prodigious research spending, Wisconsin ranks an abysmal 36th out of 50 states in its ability to produce spin-out companies from university research.
• Wisconsin ranks 10th out of 50 states in high school graduates going to college, but only 37th in college grads that stay in the state. That’s called brain drain. Or more accurately, brain hemorrhage. College graduates gravitate to job opportunities. Obviously, these graduates don’t find these opportunities in Madison or southeastern Wisconsin.
• Metro Milwaukee ranks an abysmal 40th out of 50 cities in high school graduates entering the work force with college degrees. This means either that our high school graduates aren’t going to college or, if they are, they leave the state to work.
• $720 million in annual tax revenues go to UW-Madison, $355 million in tax revenues go to the aforementioned north central campuses and a paltry $249 million goes to UWM. It’s no wonder our graduates don’t stay when our own government won’t invest in southeastern Wisconsin.
• The collective budgets of the Milwaukee and Waukesha Area Technical Colleges exceed $414 million. The collective budgets of the public two-year colleges and UW extensions in the state exceed $276 million. We invest more in public technical education and two-year institutions than we do in our local public university.
• Eighty percent of UWM graduates stay in Wisconsin.
What can we glean from these figuresω Keep in mind that southeastern Wisconsin is the largest region in the state in terms of population, workforce, minority population, wealth and jobs. Also, remember this simple equation: Ideas (research) + Talent (coming from higher education) = Economic growth and jobs.
Southeastern Wisconsin has been the victim of under-investment in public higher education and perhaps even mal-investment in not so higher education (technical colleges, extensions and two-year colleges). For whatever reason, whether that be partisan politics, bureaucratic turf protection, myopic leadership or decisions by people who simply don’t know what they are doing, like the UW Board of Regents, southeastern Wisconsin is not getting anywhere close to its fair share of government investment in higher education.
What are we sheep to do instead of enduring this ongoing slaughterω First, we as citizens and business leaders need to demand that our government representatives recognize that Wisconsin’s investment in higher education must put greater focus on developing UWM into a premier undergraduate and research institution that serves the citizens of southeastern Wisconsin by becoming a cornerstone for this region’s drive to remain competitive.
Second, in developing UWM, we need to ensure that, unlike UW-Madison, there is a better balance between undergraduate instruction and research.
Third, our government representatives need to accept that Madison’s much ballyhooed research activities are not producing sufficient jobs in southeastern Wisconsin.
Fourth, we need to reallocate UW System resources into the area where more people live, work and provide the wealth and tax base that fuel Wisconsin’s economy.
Fifth, let’s dismantle the dysfunctional UW System and its pilot, the Board of Regents. While neither has shown any commitment to serve southeastern Wisconsin, both have been only too willing to provide backup jobs for housekeepers, janitors, a forum for nutcases who think the U.S. government orchestrated 9/11 and an environment that gives paid leave to sexual harassers masquerading as professors.
Also, I have yet to hear an apology from the Regents for wasting $26 million on a computer system that was never put in service.
Finally, let’s not be satisfied with only one Wisconsin university being in the top 100 in the nation. Let’s think bigger — two or even more top 100 institutions.
Let’s affect our own destiny by forcing the approval of the merger of UW-Waukesha into UWM so it can have a western campus that fosters engineering and other research into new areas not covered by UW-Madison.
If we really want to think big, why not invest in research in areas that will touch the lives of all Americans for the rest of the 21st century, such as research in energy production and alternative energy sourcesω Those areas touch all parts of business and cannot fail to produce a corresponding impact on jobs in southeastern Wisconsin for the next 100 years.
Remember two simple equations: Ideas + Talent = Growth and jobs; and Poor leadership + Poor investment = No growth and no jobs.
Tim Nettesheim is the managing shareholder for Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren’s Waukesha County office. He also is a member of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s comprehensive fundraising campaign cabinet.