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The University of Madison?

by Noel Radomski, WISCAPE Director and Associate Researcher | Oct 8, 2015
UW System President Ray Cross and UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank have submitted a resolution, “Waiver of Nonresident Enrollment Limit for UW-Madison,” which will be voted on at the October 8-9, 2015, UW System Board of Regents meeting. If approved, UW-Madison would be exempt from the UW System Board of Regents policy that caps enrollment of out-of-state undergraduate students at 27.5 percent (Regent Policy Document 7-3, section III). The resolution would allow UW-Madison to increase the number of nonresident domestic and international undergraduates it enrolls through 2019.

On its face, and according to UW System and UW-Madison press releases supporting the waiver resolution (see here​ and here), the proposed resolution should be noncontroversial. Who would be opposed to providing UW-Madison greater flexibility to recruit and enroll future freshman classes, and allowing the campus to generate additional tuition revenue?

However, if one scratches below the surface, questions the data provided by UW System and UW-Madison, and compares the proposal with research findings about what happens at public research universities that pursue similar enrollment flexibilities (see here and here), it becomes apparent the proposed waiver is poorly designed policy. The UW System Board of Regents should delay a vote on the proposed resolution until they have an opportunity to weigh the proposal’s advantages, disadvantages, and unintended consequences. Also, the public should have the opportunity to review and provide feedback on the proposal before current policy is changed.

Weighing the Arguments For and Against the Resolution

Below are five arguments the UW System president and UW-Madison chancellor have offered in support of the proposed waiver resolution, followed by facts that contradict these arguments.

Argument 1
: The waiver will not lead to a UW-Madison enrollment reduction of Wisconsin residents. The proposal includes a requirement that UW-Madison enroll a minimum of 3,500 Wisconsin residents in each freshman class.

The Real Facts
  • The recommended minimum of 3,500 Wisconsin residents in future freshman classes would be a reduction from the last four years. In 2012, the UW-Madison freshman class included 3,519 Wisconsin residents; in 2013, it included 3,843 Wisconsin residents; in 2014, it included 3,749 Wisconsin residents; and this fall, it included 3,617 Wisconsin residents.
  • At the December 7, 2012, UW System Board of Regents meeting, where the​ regents increased the cap ​on nonresident undergraduates from 25 to 27.5 percent, ​they agreed that: “…it was good to have a cap on nonresident enrollment. It serves to guard against the natural tendency to try and maximize revenue, and it provides a balance to the needs of in-state students."
Argument 2: Admission of transfer students will continue to be a priority that offers mobility and opportunity to more Wisconsin students.

The Real Facts
  • The proposed waiver, as noted earlier, includes a requirement that UW-Madison enroll a minimum of 3,500 Wisconsin residents in each freshman class, but there is no similar requirement that ​the campus enroll a minimum number of transfer students ​from Wisconsin. Why not? What message does this convey to parents, prospective transfer students, college advisors, faculty, and legislators? If a student enrolls in one of the UW Colleges campuses or a Wisconsin technical college to save money, reduce student loans, and ultimately transfer to UW-Madison, will the transfer doors be closed? Uncertainty reigns.
  • Past enrollment of transfer students has been inconsistent: In 2011, UW-Madison enrolled 1,014 transfer students from Wisconsin; in 2012, the number was 915; in 2013, it was 806; in 2014, 632; and in 2015, 905.

Argument 3: Wisconsin needs to attract more young people into its workforce, and this can be done by increasing the number of nonresident domestic and international undergraduates at UW-Madison.

The Real Facts

  • Surprisingly, UW-Madison’s and UW System’s facts contradict their own argument: only 15 percent of UW-Madison’s nonresident undergraduates stayed in Wisconsin in the year following graduation in 2014. Increasing nonresident undergraduates will not contribute to Wisconsin’s workforce needs. In fact, it will contribute to the brain drain as more UW-Madison graduates accept jobs in other states and countries.
  • On the other hand, if UW-Madison and the UW System Board of Regents were to increase the number of Wisconsin resident undergraduates it enrolls, that could help address Wisconsin’s workforce needs. UW-Madison graduates who are Wisconsin residents are far more likely to stay and work in the state (see here, page 3).

Argument 4: The number of Wisconsin high school graduates is declining, and thus UW-Madison needs to recruit more nonresident domestic and international undergraduates.

The Real Facts

  • The UW System and UW-Madison have cited projections from the out-of-state Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education (WICHE) in making this claim. However, UW-Madison’s own Applied Research Laboratory (APL) has worked with Wisconsin school districts on demographic analysis and school projections for the past fifteen years, and their projections show a slight increase in total high school enrollment at the state level the next two years, followed by a period of increased growth. (View APL’s full report, summary, and poster.)

Argument 5: The proposal to eliminate the maximum number of nonresident undergraduates enrolled at UW-Madison is not being driven by the need to generate additional tuition revenue.

The Real Facts

  • Chancellor Blank’s own words during her “State of the University” address on October 5 contradict this claim. She said: “You all know that the state budget brought deep cuts to our finances –- we were handed an $86m deficit, effective July 1…To fill this deficit, we have cut or redirected about $34 million…We have also received permission from the ​regents to raise out-of-state and professional school tuition over the next two years, which brings in about another $17 million this year and $15 million next year. Unfortunately, if you’re doing the math, this leaves us with an ongoing deficit. I am also asking the ​regents for permission to increase the number of nonresident undergraduates, while making a commitment to admit Wisconsin students at the same rate as we have for many years.”
  • Earlier this year the UW System Board of Regents approved a resident undergraduate tuition freeze for two years. However, the regents also approved four years of tuition increases for nonresident domestic and international undergraduates.
  • This year, tuition for nonresident domestic undergraduates at UW-Madison is $28,523; next year, it will increase to $31,523; in 2017, it will be $33,523; and in 2018, it will be $35,523.
  • This year, tuition for nonresident international undergraduates at UW-Madison is $29,523; next year, it will increase to $32,523; in 2017, it will be $34,523; and in 2018, it will be $36,523.
  • This year, tuition for Minnesota undergraduates at UW-Madison is $13,382, compared to $10,416 for Wisconsinites.
  • The new nonresident international student tuition rate is the highest of all tuition levels, making it highly likely that UW-Madison will recruit and enroll more international undergraduate students to help reduce the budget deficit.   

Lessons to Consider From Research

A forthcoming research article in The Journal of Higher Education, co-published by Ozan Jaquette, University of Arizona, Julie Posselt, University of Michigan, and Bradley Curs, University of Missouri, examines what happens to public research universities when they increase enrollment of nonresident undergraduate students to generate tuition revenue. The following conditions often result:

  1. A reduction in the proportion of state residents in the undergraduate population, especially if the public research university has more selective admissions requirements.
  2. A reduction in the number of low-income resident and nonresident undergraduates.
  3. More class (socioeconomic) isolation on campus leading to campus climate problems.
  4. An increase in the number of high-income nonresident domestic and international undergraduates.
  5. A reduction in the number of resident undergraduate minority students.
  6. More racial isolation on campus leading to campus climate problems.
  7. An increase in the number of academically qualified nonresident undergraduates.
  8. A shift from need-based institutional grants to merit-based institutional grants to recruit higher-income students from other states and countries.
  9. A shift toward university’s private self-interest by increasing in academic prestige and tuition revenue generation.
  10. A shift away from public good by enrolling fewer in-state undergraduates, especially lower-income and underrepresented students, thus decreasing social mobility and contributing to the income inequality.

Shooting Blanks in an Empty Barrel

Most universities have an enrollment management plan that outlines future applications, admissions, financial aid, and enrollment goals. The plan includes projected budget allocations for programs and activities to help achieve these goals. Most importantly, the enrollment management plan expresses the university’s values and priorities. For example, does the university want to increase, maintain, or decrease the number of state residents in the freshman class and the entire undergraduate class? Does the campus want to offer more or less institutional need-based grants or institutional merit-based grants to incentivize enrollment of residents, nonresidents, or international students? Does the campus want to increase tuition revenue by enrolling students who pay the highest tuition rates? What are the purposes behind enrolling nonresident international undergraduates, and ​in what countries should the campus target recruitment efforts?

Unfortunately, UW-Madison does not have an enrollment management plan. However, it does have a Division of Enrollment Management and a vice provost for the division of enrollment management. Why is this significant?

If UW-Madison receives a waiver from the 27.5 percent cap on nonresident undergraduate enrollment, these campus leaders will be granted significant admissions and enrollment flexibilities. Without an enrollment management plan, how will campus leaders decide where to focus their energies? Will they be shooting blanks in an empty barrel? Or will money decide which students are recruited and enrolled? As the regents noted at their December 7, 2012, meeting: “…an increase in opportunity for Wisconsin students to attend the UW-Madison can be accomplished best through an enrollment management plan that increases the size of the incoming freshman class, including an increase in the number of Wisconsin freshmen, and a steady number of Wisconsin resident transfer students…” (see here, page 13).


The proposed UW System Board of Regents resolution that would remove the cap on the percentage of UW-Madison nonresident undergraduates could lead to negative, unintended consequences for Wisconsin’s families, communities, and businesses. Research findings suggest that as public research universities experience greater financial challenges, they struggle not only with determining their own institutional values and admissions goals, but also with conflicting expectations from state elected leaders, families with prospective students, high school counselors, business leaders, and many others. These struggles escalate when a public research university needs to find a substitute for steady reductions in state appropriations.

At UW-Madison, nonresident and international undergraduate tuition revenue is increasingly filling the gap left by reductions in state appropriations, as is philanthropy and campus entrepreneurial programs. If the campus no longer has a cap on nonresident undergraduates, will it focus more on recruitment efforts at affluent non-Wisconsin high schools and less on Wisconsin high schools, particularly those with large numbers of low-income and underrepresented students?

As public research universities pursue and attract more applications from nonresident and international students, they tend to offer admission to students with higher standardized test scores and deny or wait-list more applicants. They are also more likely to increase budget allocations to merit-based institutional grants at the expense of need-based grants, increase campus amenities, and increase athletic department expenses to attract affluent out-of-state students.

If approved, the proposed UW System Board of Regents resolution could lead to dramatic changes to UW-Madison’s admissions, recruitment, and budget decisions. It could compromise opportunity for many Wisconsin students to be seriously considered for admission to the state’s land-grant institution.

This proposal, which could have a profound impact on UW-Madison’s values, has had little-to-no campus discussion. UW-Madison administrators have not vetted the proposal with campus governance groups. UW-Madison administrators have not consulted with the designated campus committee which is charged reviewing admissions and financial aid policies. Other than several media articles this week, the public has not been engaged in this important public policy question, which will affect many Wisconsin families.

The UW System Board of Regents should refer the resolution to a future meeting and give it the thorough review it deserves.

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  1. comment
    This is certainly not the only recent case of drastic actions with long-term negative consequences taken without public discussion and input from campus governance groups. A few powerful administrators take actions to silence what would be widespread dissent. This is just another case of the current pervasive strategy—minimize and blitzkrieg. Our once-great public university is rapidly becoming UW Incorporated.

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