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UW-Madison #116 in College Access Index… why no press release?

by Noel Radomski, WISCAPE Director and Associate Researcher | Sep 18, 2015

Concern about income and wealth inequality in the United States (and Wisconsin) has increased exponentially since the Great Recession. Recently, the New York Times shined a light on income and wealth inequality in American public and private colleges and universities with its annual College Access Index. UW-Madison did not fare well, ranking 116 out of 179 top colleges.

The New York Times article, “California’s Upward-Mobility Machine,” explains that the College Access Index is based on three factors:

  1. The share of students receiving Pell grants;
  2. The graduation rate of those students; and
  3. Net cost, after financial aid, that a college charges low- and middle-income students.

What does the College Access Index ranking say about UW-Madison? The university’s Pell graduation share (defined as the share of the freshman class that received a Pell Grant from 2011-2015, multiplied by the graduation rate for Pell recipients) is only 10 percent, and the net price for middle-income families is $16,000.* UW-Madison’s peer universities, as defined by the UW-Madison faculty salary peer group, fared much better in the rankings:

  1. University of California-Los Angeles: #5
  2. University of California-Berkeley: #7
  3. University of Washington-Seattle Campus: #13
  4. University of Texas​ at Austin: #40
  5. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor: #48
  6. University of Illinois​ at Urbana-Champaign: #49
  7. Ohio State University: #65
  8. University of Wisconsin-Madison: #116
  9. Michigan State University: Not included
  10. University of Minnesota-Twin Cities: Not included
  11. Indiana University-Bloomington: Not Included
  12. Purdue University: Not included

Looking beyond this particular ranking, UW-Madison’s recent track-record in recruiting and enrolling undergraduates receiving Pell Grants ​is dismal. ​In 1992, 16.4 percent of UW-Madison undergraduates received Pell Grants; in 2001, the share was only 12.5 percent; and in 2004, it was 13.7 percent.

Why does this matter for UW-Madison and for Wisconsin?

First, the data shows that we are moving away from a critical objective in the UW-Madison mission statement, “…to attract and serve students from diverse social, economic and ethnic backgrounds and to be sensitive and responsive to those groups which have been underserved by higher education.”

Second, it illustrates that we are not meeting an important objective in the 2015-2019 UW-Madison Strategic Framework 2015-2019, to “[i]mprove access and affordability through need-based financial aid, scholarships, and fellowships to ensure socioeconomic diversity and timely completion.”

Third, it illustrates UW-Madison’s steady departure from one of the hallmarks as Wisconsin land-grant status which evolved from  the 1862 Morrill Land-Grant Act. In the 1962 publication “The University of Wisconsin History Digest: A Land-Grant Centennial Publication,” University of Wisconsin President Conrad Elvehjem described four hallmarks of the ​act, including, “[t]hat society therefore should seek to educate as well as possible all of its youngsters to their highest capability​ -- regardless of their race, creed, social or financial status.”

The data is also troublesome considering recent efforts by the university to recruit, enroll, and graduate economically disadvantaged students. Since 2009, UW-Madison has invested $90 million in need-based grants through the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates. UW-Madison has also increased the number of FASTrack undergraduate students it assists in paying for college through a combination of grants, work, and small loans. The UW Foundation and the UW Trademarks and Licensing Office continue to allocate more revenue/fundraising dollars to need-based aid. And finally, UW-Madison has a large number of pre-college programs which recruit and enroll low- and middle-income Wisconsin K-12 students.

What is surprising is that UW-Madison has not conducted comprehensive, rigorous evaluations of the many different need-based grants and programs aimed at increasing economic diversity of the undergraduate population. The absence of evaluations suggests that the campus does not know which programs are (or are not) meeting their goals of contributing to more economically diverse undergraduate students. The campus cannot eliminate programs which are not effective, and they cannot enhance programs which are effective.

Why do some of our peer universities excel in recruiting and enrolling lower- and middle-income state residents? Is it simply that helping their state’s low- and middle-income youth access and graduate from college is a higher priority? Is it all about campus leadership, or a lack of campus leadership, on this issue? If improving the economic diversity of the state’s population is not a priority of the chancellor, provost, deans, department chairs, and campus governance groups, then we get what we get, regardless of what the UW-Madison mission statement and strategic plan say.

Sadly, other UW-Madison undergraduate student enrollment data suggest this is the case​ -- for example, the increasing share of undergraduate students who are non-residents. According to the UW-Madison Data Digest 2014-2015 (page 12), from 2005 to 2014 the percent of non-resident undergraduate students increased from 21.6 percent to 26.7 percent. Furthermore, in October UW-Madison will ask the UW System Board of Regents to revise the Regent Policy 7-3 to increase the non-resident undergraduate enrollment maximum, which is currently set at 27.5 percent, to deal with budget cuts. How will further increasing the share of non-residents students at UW-Madison affect enrollment of lower- and middle-income Wisconsin students? It is likely to have a negative effect.

Other troubling data includes the percent of UW-Madison’s new freshmen who are first-generation students, which peaked at 20.9 percent in 2006 and declined to 16.8 percent by 2014. On the other hand, the percent of UW-Madison freshmen who are legacy students has increased from 16.1 percent in 2005 to 18.8 percent in 2014.**

UW-Madison has no problem highlighting college rankings where it does well, such as when it was ranked “11th best public college” by U.S. News and World Report. Though as ​pointed out by Washington Monthly, the "best colleges" ​in U.S. News are generally those that spend the most money, exclude the most students, and impress a small circle of elites.

UW-Madison has yet to distribute a press release announcing its ranking of 116 in the New York Times College Access Index. Don’t hold your breath.

* According to the New York Times article, “The net price for middle-income students covers tuition, fees, room and board, after taking into account federal state, and institutional financial aid, and it applies to students who come from households earning between $48,000 and $75,000 a year and qualifying for federal aid. Loans and wages from work-study jobs are counted in the net price as part of the students’ cost."

The term "legacy" means that a member of the student's immediate family or grandparent graduated from UW‐Madison.

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