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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Report: Financial Challenges Put UWM's Research & Access Missions At Risk

UWM building
Emily Files
A sign on UWM's main campus touts the university's research ranking. A new analysis raises concern about whether UWM will be able to maintain the R1 status if current financial trends continue.

A new report raises questions about whether the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee can maintain its Tier 1 research status and its mission to serve disadvantaged students, under current financial conditions.

Wisconsin Policy Forum research director Jason Stein wrote the report, titled "Degree of Difficulty." It digs in to how UWM stacks up against other UW institutions and peer urban research universities on important measures such as enrollment and financial support.

Stein says UWM has been hit harder than most by enrollment declines, tight state funding and Wisconsin's eight-year tuition freeze.

"When you have both tuition low and state funding low and you have enrollment declines that is like a triple whammy for an institution," Stein says. "[That] makes it challenging to do all the things they want to do."

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Financial pressures have led UWM to decrease its spending on research and development, potentially putting its prestigious Research 1 (R1) status at risk. The designation is given to universities with a high level of research activity.

Between 2011 and 2019, UWM's spending on research and development dropped 12.1%, whereas spending at a group of 15 peer institutions increased 13.8%

"That does speak to the concern of maintaining that elite status," Stein says.

Tight budgets also jeopardize UWM’s mission to provide access to higher education for students of color, low-income and first-generation students.

"It's important to be bringing a larger circle of students and future workers and citizens into the world of higher education, and financial aid is really critical to that," Stein says. "[Financial aid] has been declining at the federal level for Wisconsin students and state aid has been flat. It hits every institution, but it hits UWM harder than most."

An extended conversation with Wisconsin Policy Forum's Jason Stein.

Even though UWM has made progress in raising graduation and retention rates for underrepresented students, the university isn't able to provide as much financial aid as schools with more resources, like UW-Madison.

The report notes that in 2020, the average student debt for UWM graduates receiving bachelor's degrees was $33,565, which is 12% higher than the average debt for UW-Madison graduates and UW System graduates as a whole.

"UW leaders, state leaders, regional leaders need to be thoughtful and act with some urgency to ensure that some of these positive trends keep going and that some of these other more challenging trends don't threaten that good work that's being done," Stein says.

UWM Chancellor Mark Mone, pictured here at a press conference in March 2020, often speaks of the challenges of maintaining UWM's "dual missions" of research and access.
Emily Files
UWM Chancellor Mark Mone, pictured here at a press conference in March 2020, often speaks of the challenges of maintaining UWM's "dual missions" of research and access.

UW System Interim President Tommy Thompson and UWM Chancellor Mark Mone provided statements responding to the Wisconsin Policy Forum's report.

“A vibrant public university in Wisconsin’s largest metropolitan area – focused on both research and access – is key to all of Wisconsin’s success," Thompson said. "With support from the Board of Regents and business and community leaders, we are going to build UW-Milwaukee up in the face of any challenges. It is one of our top priorities.”

Thompson asked for a $96 million state funding boost in the 2021-23 biennial state budget. It included expanding UW-Madison's Bucky's Tuition Promise program to all UW schools. The college affordability program and the bulk of Thompson's proposals were rejected by Republican lawmakers, though they did end the eight-year tuition freeze, allowing the UW System Board of Regents to increase tuition in the future.

Mone applauded the policy forum's summary of UWM's financial challenges.

"The Wisconsin Policy Forum has done an admirable job of describing the significant challenges that UWM faces," Mone said. "It also recognizes the tremendous work our faculty and staff have done despite those challenges, including improving graduation rates and reducing the time and cost to earn a degree. We will continue at UWM to do our best for all of our students, but as the report makes clear, it is our most vulnerable students who are at risk without additional financial support.

WUWM is a service of UW-Milwaukee.

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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