Roach: Econ 101

Leaders of UW–Stevens Point made seismic waves
Roach: Econ 101
University Communications/University of Wisconsin-Madison

It’s not often that folks in Madison pay attention to the happenings in Stevens Point, but this past month was different. Just 109.5 miles north of Madison, the leaders of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point made seismic waves that registered an 8.2 on the higher education Richter Scale. The aftershocks were surely felt on the Madison campus.

UW-Stevens Point Chancellor Bernie Patterson announced that the school was dropping seven academic majors: French, German, history, geology, geography, plus the intriguing majors of two- and three-dimensional art.

I studied to be a high school history teacher at UW-Madison. I loved studying history. I avidly read historical nonfiction still. But history has fallen on hard times. At UW-Stevens Point, the number of students majoring in history dropped 48 percent over the last five years, because, like the old joke goes, who opens a history store at the mall?

So, in short, history has become history at UW-Stevens Point.

The reason for these curriculum cuts can be explained with two words. Student debt.

As of February 2018, student debt in America stood at more than $1.5 trillion dollars. Forty-four million college grads have student loan debt averaging $37,172. In fact, hard as it is to believe, student debt in America is greater than our aggregate credit card debt – by a long shot.

This debt can be laid at the feet of tuition hikes. Over the last 30 years, college tuition has increased by 213 percent, an inflation rate greater than any consumer category during that time, including health care. Correction, there is one cost that has inflated more than college tuition: college textbooks. Imagine that.

These economic realities make quick employment after graduation paramount.

A history major is deemed ineffective in that job quest. Hence the decrease in majors. These factors have also decreased overall enrollment in many schools.

Using simple Econ 101, colleges are selling a commodity that costs too much, so the market has stopped buying. Especially at regional universities. Western Illinois University just laid off 24 faculty members and another 62 unfilled positions are being eliminated. This phenomenon hasn’t hit the big-status schools like UW-Madison as of yet. Parents still want to send their kids here, especially if said parents have money.

Which is another troubling aspect to this trend. Despite lots of scholarship money, college is becoming a rich kid’s game. The implications of that reality can’t be good for our country or economy.

Predictably, the faculty at UW-Stevens Point is demanding that Patterson be fired. Pretty much any attempt to modify higher education in America is viewed as anti-intellectual by intellectuals, especially if they are college professors with tenure.

I was talking with a great UW-Madison professor who was bemoaning tight budgets and I asked him, “Rather than spreading yourself thin and being poor, why don’t you just do less better?” He came alive. “I keep saying that, but it doesn’t go anywhere.”

The easiest parties to blame are state government and Scott Walker. But Walker’s Democratic predecessor Jim Doyle cut higher education budgets, as did the legendary California Democratic governor Jerry Brown. In fact, there are only five states in the country which have returned to funding levels higher than in 2008. And a few of those states have lots of oil.

So, what does this mean for Madison? Will the crown jewel of Wisconsin education, and the more than 16,000 people in Madison it employs, be affected by these trends? Possibly not. UW-Madison receives millions upon millions of research dollars that smaller schools never see. And UW-Madison has Badger Nation, a very large and semi-wealthy alumni population with many alums willing to dip into their pockets every time they hear “Varsity.” But for perspective, UW-Madison’s endowment is $2.7 billion dollars. Stanford’s is $27 billion. Harvard’s is $37 billion. We may have latitude, but not as much as we’d like.

The greater question for the UW is one of mission. The UW is one of our nation’s great public universities. It should be accessible. True to a great progressive institution, wouldn’t it be interesting if UW-Madison led the way for similar institutions to get smaller to get better, thus safeguarding its mission?

Let’s face it: To demand that higher education reorganize is viewed by many as an insult to our collective intellect. But to believe you live in a world where nothing changes is the bigger insult.

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at johneroach@mac.com.

Find a Letter to the Editor from UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank.

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