Office of the President



Remarks to the Special Committee on Building Wisconsin's Workforce

Kevin P. Reilly, President, University of Wisconsin System

August 18, 2008

Representative Strachota, and members of this committee, my name is Kevin Reilly, and I am the President of the University of Wisconsin System. 

Before I introduce my colleagues, let me first thank you for the opportunity to appear before you.  I believe this committee represents a great opportunity for dialogue about our critical workforce issues, and I welcome the chance to speak about how the University of Wisconsin System is working to meet both current and future workforce needs, and also what we are doing in areas of high workforce demand such as health care and technology. I also look forward to discussing our efforts to coordinate our educational services and resources – not just among UW System’s four-year and two year campuses – but also with the PK-12 sector, the Wisconsin Technical Colleges, the private colleges, and with private businesses in your local communities. 

I’d especially like to thank your Chair, Representative Strachota, who was kind enough to meet with me last week to discuss the Committee’s interests.

Let me introduce my colleagues.  I do not intend to have them testify with me, but rather they are available to help answer any questions you may have.  Seated with me are: 

  • Gail Bergman, Acting Director of UW System’s Office of Planning and Analysis,
  • Larry Rubin, Assistant Vice President for Academic and Student Services at UW System,
  • Katharyn May, Dean of the School of Nursing at UW-Madison, and
  • David Schejbal, Dean, Continuing Education, Outreach & E-Learning at UW-Extension

I want to begin by talking broadly about the University of Wisconsin System – and our vision for an economically vibrant Wisconsin.  I hope many of you will know about the UW System’s “Growth Agenda for Wisconsin” that we first introduced in 2006. The basic three elements of the Growth Agenda are:

  • produce more graduates
  • create more jobs, and
  • enhance our communities. 

I believe that our goals are your goals—that we all share the same vision for an economically robust Wisconsin where our children and grandchildren will enjoy a high quality of life, and earn family-supporting wages in jobs that have a future.    

Why is growing our number of college graduates central to that vision?  To illustrate, let me offer you a quick comparison to our neighbor, Minnesota. 

Just 10 years ago, Wisconsin had the same percentage of degree holders as Minnesota. Today, Wisconsin has approximately 25% of its working-age population with a four-year college degree, while Minnesota has 32%.  That difference of seven percentage points has a tremendous impact on our individual pocketbooks and, on a larger scale, our state’s economy.   There is a direct relationship between the percentage of baccalaureate degrees in a state and the per capita income of its citizens. Minnesota, with its more educated workforce, is now over $4,500 ahead of us in per capita income.  In other words, if Wisconsin had the same percentage of baccalaureate degree holders as Minnesota, and the same per capita income average, it is estimated Wisconsin taxpayers would take home an additional $25 billion in personal income. $25 billion! 

My point is that Wisconsin being behind in degree holders has real economic impact on our workforce, and on the economic vitality of our state. 

In 1970, Wisconsin ranked 30th in the nation in numbers of degree holders as a percent of the working-age population, and by 2007 we had fallen to 35th.  In 1970, the U.S. led the world in educational attainment.  Today we’re 10th on the international scene.  Broader access to higher education yields higher personal incomes, greater economic productivity, stronger communities, and ultimately a healthier democracy.  So, the first of our three core goals in the Growth Agenda is to grow more graduates, and the statistics illustrate why. 

I often hear that our graduates are fleeing, and that Wisconsin is experiencing a “brain drain.”   It’s not really true.  Generally, if you’re educated in Wisconsin, you’ll stay in Wisconsin.  In fact, Wisconsin ranks higher than most other states in this regard:  80% of UW students who are Wisconsin residents when they start at the university are living and working in Wisconsin five years after they graduate  – even with all the mosquitoes.  But looking again at our neighbors to the west, there’s something else that’s happening in Minnesota that is not happening here.  That is, Minnesota is attracting more degree holders from other states to live and work in Minnesota.  They produce about the same number of college graduates as we do each year, but they also attract many more degree holders from elsewhere.  In reality, it’s more that Wisconsin has a problem with “brain gain,” or lack thereof.

The only way Wisconsin can do better at getting graduates from other states to live and work in Wisconsin is if we have the jobs to support them.  That is the second goal of the Growth Agenda:  grow more jobs.  Grow more jobs and grow better jobs that support our quality of life. 

It means we have to make jobs out of the ideas that are grown in university classrooms and laboratories. 

We also must look at workforce needs in particular communities and establish curricula around them, so that workers get educated where they live.   One of our best examples is our Adult Student Initiative.  This important initiative is a central pillar of the Growth Agenda for Wisconsin, designed to develop new degree-completion programs and specialized advising services that non-traditional aged students need and deserve. In addition, it includes work on expanding flexible class offerings with accelerated, hybrid, and online evening and weekend courses.   It targets full-time working parents who are place-bound by their responsibilities – the families you encounter every day back home in your districts – the citizens who pay taxes and vote in elections. 

In your packets is an article from the Marshfield News Herald about UW-Marshfield’s new “FastTrack” degree program as just one of many examples of this kind of university service to local communities and their residents.        

Ultimately, we all want more graduates and more jobs to help build stronger communities, and that is the third goal of the Growth Agenda – building stronger communities – in Marshfield and all over the state. 

If we’re going to add student seats and build new programs around the state in tough economic times, we must be very cost-conscious.  We must be efficient and accountable for the resources we receive, and transparent in what we’re accomplishing with them.  We have a good story to tell here.   Last week System President Emeritus Katherine Lyall and I co-authored an editorial that ran in several newspapers regarding the UW’s long-standing efforts on accountability. We are proud to be among the first systems of higher education nationwide to recognize and embrace the need for an annual accountability report. We know we need quantifiable data about our strengths and weaknesses to share with our many stakeholders, especially those who invest in us.  We’ve been sharing that data for 15 years.

With regard to cost efficiency in producing a college-educated workforce, there are some hard numbers I think this committee should know:

  • In the last seven years, we have reduced our ongoing base of state GPR support by $125 million, eliminated some 1,000 tax-supported positions, and added more than 8,200 headcount students.  That’s improved productivity by anybody’s definition.
  • We are now enrolling an all-time high of 173,000 students.
  • The amount of state tax dollars spent per student is $1,500 less than the national average, and $1,900 less than Minnesota.
  • And we help those students graduate faster.  In the early ‘90s, students took an average of nearly 145 academic credits to complete their bachelor’s degrees, while today that average has been reduced to 134.  Fewer credits earned per degree means lower cost to our families and students.  It also means higher earning potential once they’ve graduated.   It also opens up more seats for others to pursue their degrees. 
  • It’s important to recognize these efficiencies in the context of state spending, which, as you know, has continued to decline as a percentage of our overall budget.  The cost in state tax dollars to support public higher education in Wisconsin – that’s the entire Tech College System and the entire UW System combined – is now $227 per capita.  That ranks us 34th in the nation for such expenditures.  So 33 states pay more per citizen for their public higher education systems.  Few of those systems rival the University of Wisconsin in their reputations for quality.  By the way, Minnesota has the 12th highest expenditures per capita.  The Gopher State spends $303 per citizen, versus our $227.

And since we’re touching on the high quality of our educational systems in Wisconsin, let me make a very brief point about a concern that has been raised with regard to how well the students who enter our institutions are prepared, and how often they may need remedial education. 

The UW System already provides a report to the legislature about remedial education.   One thing we’ve learned from doing that report is that if a student completes remedial coursework, chances are he or she will remain in school to complete a degree.  Statistically, those who go through remedial education complete degrees with the same rate of success as those who do not need it.  If you are interested in the report, I’m happy to get you a copy, with lots of data in it.

Let me emphasize a basic point here – we would like not to have to do remedial education in the university system.  So we are ramping up our work with the K-12 system to decrease the amount of it we do.          

I know that this committee is interested not only in our collaborations with K-12, but with the Technical Colleges as well.  Let me address those in brief.

You have three handouts on that subject.

  • The first are the transfer agreements we have between the four-year institutions in the UW System and the technical colleges, and also the transfer agreements between the UW’s two-year colleges and the technical colleges.  As you can see, there are already over 500 agreements, and more are coming.  
  • The second handout I have is our new “enhancing the transfer experience” brochure.  We’re trying to make transfers as seamless as possible. Each year more than 15,000 students transfer between the various systems and institutions.  There are several programs – like the UW Madison Connections Program – which provide automatic admission to UW Madison as juniors for students who begin at other institutions, including both our two-year UW Colleges and selected Technical Colleges.  If they are in good standing, they can complete their degree at Madison – and all of these programs are designed to get a better return on the number of graduates we produce in Wisconsin, and yes, to provide a way for your constituents to earn their degree from UW-Madison, too.   
  • The third is the “Transfer Information System” brochure.  This Transfer Information System is a tool most of us couldn’t imagine when we went to school.  It’s an interactive online “wizard” designed to show a student, a parent, anybody, how to make transferring between institutions of higher education in Wisconsin a reality. For example, you might have an English major at Milwaukee who wants to become a Physical Therapy major at La Crosse.  Many of you know that students do change their mind a lot during their educational experience!  This TIS computer program will show that “poet-turned-physical-therapist” how the classes she took at Milwaukee can be applied towards her new degree program at UW-La Crosse.  It is a high-tech computer program, considered one of the best in the nation, and it is another example of the innovative ways the UW is trying to improve both educational opportunity and educational efficiency in Wisconsin.

This Committee is of course interested in jobs in areas of high demand.  We share that interest, too.  I’ve given you information about some of those in the handout on transfer agreements.  It’s organized by institution so you can see some of the great collaborations going on statewide in high demand areas like health care and engineering. But let me also offer you a few important points specifically about those two fields.

First, I’d like to talk about our critical workforce needs in the field of health care. 

  • As you can see from the transfer agreement handout I gave you, there is a lot of collaboration already going on in the health care fields, and specifically in nursing.
  • We have approved the planning of three Doctor of Nursing Practice programs at Madison, Milwaukee, and a collaborative program at Eau Claire and Oshkosh.  These programs will prepare graduates to, among other things, serve as clinical faculty in our nursing programs at the baccalaureate and master’s levels, thereby helping to address the shortage of instructional capacity in nursing.  The programs will be ready to go to the Board of Regents for approval this academic year.

It’s exciting to talk about our efforts in engineering, as well.  I’d like to offer just two examples:

  • UW Platteville has had a high quality engineering program for some time.  Now, through collaborations with other institutions, it is producing many more engineering degrees.  You can now earn an engineering degree from UW-Platteville while you are attending UW-Fox Valley and UW-Rock. 
  • My second example in engineering is a new bachelor of science degree in computer engineering at UW-Stout that I will be recommending to the Board of Regents later this week.  It focuses on training students to design hardware and software for engineering systems, and to use those skills in collaboration with business and industry in order to help grow the state’s economy.               

We’re working with the state and other partners in the areas of health care, engineering, and the other high demand fields your committee is talking about.  I offer you just a few examples of the good things we are doing, and there are certainly more.  Within our limited timeframe today I’ll end with those examples.  My colleagues here will hopefully be able to elaborate on any of the more detailed questions you may ask.  If not, I’ll work to get those details to you as soon as possible. 

I’d be remiss if I did not mention in closing yet another large workforce in Wisconsin – the 40,000 faculty and staff of the University of Wisconsin.    

I want to thank you again for this opportunity to talk about the University of Wisconsin System, and I want to reiterate my desire to work with this committee on good ideas for Wisconsin’s workforce.  UW System is committed to growing more graduates, creating more jobs, and enhancing Wisconsin’s communities.

The Growth Agenda for Wisconsin has to succeed – not for the University’s sake, but for the sake of our kids’ and grandkids’ success in a global knowledge economy workforce.  Let’s work together to make that happen.

I welcome any questions you may have at this time.