Office of the President


Academic and Career Advising Fall Workshop

Remarks by Kevin P. Reilly, University of Wisconsin System President

Thursday, September 16, 2010, UW-Whitewater

"More Graduates for Wisconsin"

Good afternoon, everyone.  I feel as if I’m among friends because of my personal connection to your work … I’m delighted to have the opportunity today to do something that I suspect we don’t do often enough – and that is, to recognize our outstanding academic and career advisors in the UW System, and to salute you for the important work you do. 

Every day, thousands of students at campuses all across our System are beneficiaries of your commitment to their success. Whether it’s figuring out a way for students to get the courses they need, or finding some extra help to get someone’s math skills up to speed after years out of school, or creating a plan to land that hard-to-get internship, or maybe just listening when no-one else is around … You and your colleagues play a vital role in holding high the UW’s standards for excellence. It’s hardly hyperbole to say we could not do it without you.

Not long ago, I had the good fortune to hear a few words from one of your colleagues – Dr. Lynn Freeman, the Director of Academic Advising at UW-Oshkosh.  In June, Lynn was honored as one of several winners of the 2010 Regents’ Academic Staff Excellence Awards, a truly prestigious honor. On accepting her award, Dr. Freeman briefly addressed the Board of Regents, and she described her work – your work – like this: “In advising, we help students explore, to find out more about themselves, to learn more about careers and majors, and then we help them set goals.”

It’s a simple, but accurate description, I think, of the key role played by advisors.  If I may echo the words of the UW-Madison advisors’ mission statement, you are the ones who (quote) “provide resources, guidance, and support to enable students to explore, define, and realize their aspirations throughout their academic careers.”  It’s vital work.  

Dr. Freeman also reminded the Regents that research at UW-Oshkosh indicates that students who see advisors in their first year of college are retained at a double-digit rate higher than students who don’t see advisors.  We could perhaps write this off as a pitch for your job security – a pretty good one, I should add – but the weight of evidence supports those conclusions. That’s something we must remember, as universities all over the country try to do more with less … Indeed, in the words of one expert, Harvard educator Richard Light, (QUOTE) “Good academic advising may be the single most underestimated characteristic of a successful college experience.”  

Now, Lynn, I know that you are actually leaving the UW System to start your own business, where you’ll be working with students who are preparing for college. We wish you the best of success.  Would you ever consider expanding your business to give second career advice to ex-University System Presidents when the time comes?!

Advisors these days wear many hats.  I don’t need to tell you that. But I’d like to offer up a few thoughts on why what you do is so significant. This might be defined as a forest and the trees scenario.

The trees part you’re very familiar with – that is, the many, many individual students who seek your counsel and stir your commitment.  All the statistics about improved retention and graduation rates on our campuses are both a validation of, and a tribute to, the work you do.  But I venture to guess that there’s just as much personal satisfaction to be found in seeing that look in a student’s eyes when they realize that they’ve done what they set out to do, sometimes despite daunting odds. All those individual stories – those trees, if you will – are a regular part of your daily lives.

What I’d like to do today is to provide a little perspective about the forest view, the macro view, and where you fit in, as I see it. 

As you may already know, the United States is now one of only two developed countries where younger people are not as well educated as their parents.  Here in Wisconsin, only about one-in-four adults has a baccalaureate degree.  As of 2008, that ranked us 29th in the nation.  In Minnesota, by contrast, about one in three adults has a four-year degree. 

Economists and policymakers alike recognize that this educational shortfall comes with a very real price, both individually and as a society.

In a 2008 study, the urban policy group CEOs for Cities made the case that more degree-holders lead not only to higher per capita income, but also to a faster rate of economic growth. The report indicated that higher education levels also correlate with lower demand on social services, and lower poverty rates. We also know that educated citizens are engaged citizens. They enrich our society and strengthen our democracy.

People are accustomed to hearing University chancellors and presidents make this case, but I hear a similar sentiment echoed by community and business leaders from around the state – people who know that a college-educated workforce is critical to their regions’ and their companies’ success.

One fact that always catches people’s attention is this – if per capita incomes in Wisconsin were raised to the Minnesota average, our state residents would collectively take home $29 billion -- $29 billion – more in earnings every year.

Well, we’ve got a plan.  I suspect you have heard about it.  We call it the UW System’s Growth Agenda for Wisconsin.  As Yogi Berra once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might end up someplace else.”  That kind of unknown nobody wants. 

Put very simply, the major strategic goals of the Growth Agenda are three: to grow more degree-holders in the state; to help create more well-paying jobs; and to build stronger communities. This plan, I should tell you, has garnered a great deal of public support, in part because people understand and embrace the results that we’re trying to achieve for all Wisconsin people.

While all three of these goals ultimately affect all of us, the one that probably impacts your daily lives most directly is the one addressing more degree-holders.

The good news is that the UW System conferred more than 33,000 degrees last year – an all-time high. That total includes about 26,000 undergraduate degrees, and about 7,000 graduate and professional degrees.

You should all take real pride in these numbers, these accomplishments, because you’ve played a major role in getting us there.

But we can’t stop now. 

Earlier this year, the UW System presented a new step in the Growth Agenda called “More Graduates for Wisconsin.”  This is our plan to increase the number of people who earn their college degrees from the UW System by about 30 percent over the next 15 years.  That means adding a cumulative total of about 80,000 new college degree-holders to the Wisconsin population between now and the year 2025.   

As already mentioned, we conferred about 26,000 associate and baccalaureate degrees last year.  Under the More Graduates plan, by 2025, we want to see that number of undergraduate degrees rise to nearly 34,000.

Yes, this new goal we’ve set for ourselves is ambitious.  Achieving it will require hard work and persistence, especially when you consider that the number of traditional-aged high-school graduates is forecasted to decline in coming decades. Bucking those demographic trends will require creative approaches.

Clearly, it would be much easier to maintain the status quo – enrolling the same slice of high school graduates with the same retention rates and the same graduation rates. In that scenario, the number of UW graduates would likely decline over time, due to those shifting demographic trends. This is a case where standing still is the same as stepping backward. And we cannot afford to step backward.

To develop this plan, we had a series of in-depth conversations with each of our UW System institutions, in order to better understand just how each institution could make its unique contribution to a big goal like this. We consulted with faculty and staff leaders from across the state, and chancellors did the same at their institutions.

We are working on specific, detailed strategies. The three core elements of these strategies are:

  • Some new enrollment;
  • Better retention and graduation rates; and
  • More innovative course delivery methods and credentialing protocols.

Did I mention how much we appreciate your efforts in this regard, and how vital those efforts are to our overall success?  Good!

There is growing attention these days nationwide to the need for improved retention and graduation rates in our colleges and universities. The research indicates that the colleges that have better success in these areas tend to have two things in common: their administrators, faculty, and staff are clearly focused on making progress on those goals, and their programs are geared toward helping students on an individual basis.

Research also tells us that, regardless of institutional type or the composition of the student body, solid academic advising plays a key role in positive outcomes.  We know that we must address both academic and non-academic factors.  Issues like academic self-confidence, time management, study skills, and social integration into an institution are just a few examples of the broad spectrum of factors that must be considered. We also know that students typically are most vulnerable to attrition in their first year of college.  Accordingly, many of our campuses already employ first-year programming strategies such as learning communities, freshman seminars, and early-alert programs to identify students who are having difficulties. 

We are also aware that different UW students present widely different needs.  Yes, there are many traditional students – the 18-year-olds coming to college directly from high school – but we also have growing numbers of students who are first-generation college students, adult students, or students coming from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds.  There is no cookie-cutter approach that will work for everyone.  In this case, you have to see the trees – not the forest!

At the same time, there are other challenges that we must address if we’re focused on growing more graduates.

We know, for instance, that a successful college experience includes getting out in a timely fashion and without excessive debt.  That takes planning – the kind that advisors can provide.  As part of our responsibility to make a college degree both accessible and affordable, we need to do a better job of ensuring that students know enough about their options, and how to take advantage of them, if they so desire.

We’ve been hearing considerable talk on the national front recently about time-to-degree. Currently, only about 29% of UW System students graduate in four years.  There are a lot of reasons for this, many of them very defensible.  We’ve all heard the argument, for example, that college offers a once-in-a-lifetime, not-to-be-missed opportunity for personal and academic exploration. 

But if you’re watching the bottom line, time really is money. With proper planning and commitment, it is possible – in many cases – to complete a baccalaureate degree in four years, and there is significant financial incentive to do so.

Let’s look at this a little closer.  On most UW campuses, our tuition policy allows students to take up to 18 credits in a semester for the same price as 12 credits.  The exception is UW-Stout, where tuition is charged on a per-credit basis.  On the other campuses, however, this policy provides a considerable incentive for students to take more credits each semester, enabling them to accumulate the credits needed for graduation faster and at a lower cost. 

Is this something that all students might be interested in doing?  Probably not.  But they should at least be aware that the possibility exists if they choose to take that route.  In other words, it is our responsibility to make sure that students fully understand the possible repercussions – in terms of both time and money – of the decisions they make in selecting their courses.

If time-to-degree is a high priority, we can, in some cases, even do this one better. As of this fall, UW-Stout now offers three-year degree programs in three areas: Business Administration; Psychology; and Hotel, Restaurant, and Tourism Management.  Also starting this semester, UW-Superior is offering a three-year business degree.

We also need to remind students about their transfer options. There are many ways to get a college degree, and for many students, it’s economically prudent to take advantage of the lower tuition offered at the UW Colleges for the first two years.  After that time, and using the guaranteed transfer program, these students can easily transfer to one of our 13 four-year campuses to complete their degrees. You may know that about 2,500 students currently transfer each year from a UW Colleges campus to one of our four-year institutions.

The point of all this is that we need to communicate these available money-saving strategies in ways that our students and families can understand and embrace, and this will require frank talk from all of you and good choices by college-going students and their families.

Beyond the numbers, I want to emphasize that we remain strongly committed to high quality. As spelled out in the “shared learning goals” developed by our UW faculty and approved by the Board of Regents, people who earn those UW degrees should have the ability to think beyond the particular discipline in which they are grounded. They need to be creative problem-solvers, clear communicators, and effective leaders.

OK, all these plans and initiatives sound good … but I know what you’re thinking.  How are we going to pay for all this? Aren’t we already trying to do more with less?

On this very topic, Regent President Charles Pruitt and I have been criss-crossing the state recently, visiting with local editorial boards and with other community leaders, making what we think is a strong case for re-investing in our great University of Wisconsin System.

Thirty years ago, more than 12 cents of every Wisconsin tax dollar went to the state’s public university – representing 46% of the university’s annual budget. Today, less than 9 cents of every tax dollar goes to UW, and state support constitutes less than 24% of UW’s budget.  In effect, the State of Wisconsin has become a minority shareholder in its own public university.

UW System campuses have managed to preserve their worldwide reputation for excellence through a commitment to efficiency – and I know you all have experienced this on your own campuses.  Today, the UW System spends 57% less than the average public university on administration, saving Wisconsin taxpayers and students some $100 million every year.  With nearly 60 million square feet of buildings, our maintenance expenses are 28% less than the Midwest average. This saves taxpayers and students another $39 million annually.

So, here’s what we’re telling people about the UW and how our Growth Agenda plan addresses both the supply and demand challenges in our state’s future.  I’ve already talked about one core goal of the Growth Agenda, that is, the plan is to increase the supply of college-educated workers, addressing the growing need for people with some type of college degree.

The other part of the equation, on the demand side, is that the UW System is also working to create more jobs through an expanded emphasis on academic research and development, building on our proven record of success in that arena.

If we are to succeed in translating this vision into reality, many things will need to happen:

  • The State of Wisconsin will need to reinvest in higher education.
  • We’ll need the freedom to let UW institutions employ better business practices that make efficient use of existing resources.
  • Everyone in the UW System will need to be diligent in squeezing our overhead costs in ways that preserve quality and accountability.
  • At the same time, we’ll need to embrace new ways to deliver courses and provide new pathways toward that important college credential.
  • We must advocate for increases in all sources of need-based financial aid, including new private sources like the Fund for Wisconsin Scholars (Morgridge gift). 
  • We’ll need more close cooperation and mutual planning with the K-12 schools, technical colleges, and independent colleges.
  • Beyond those traditional partnerships, we’ll need to reach out more effectively to families and students, using the new social networking technologies, as well as the cultural, ethnic, religious, and athletic organizations to which they belong.
  • Finally, and definitely not least, we’ll need the continued goodwill and commitment of our own UW faculty and staff – you! – the people who will "deliver on the ground" on these important goals, goals that reflect the spirit that impelled many of us into higher education careers in the first place.  [Steve Weber story.]

So, that’s the big picture, the forest view!  One thing is for certain:  we all have plenty to keep us busy.

Our greatest asset at UW always has been and always will be our people – and that means people like you.  None of our rhetoric or ideals amounts to anything without the talented, dedicated men and women who connect the vision with what’s happening every day in our classrooms, our laboratories, our libraries, residence halls, and coffee shops (our coffee shops in our libraries).

In these times of tight budgets and cost-cutting, we know that public debate about higher education often boils down to professors and classrooms.  But we also know that students’ success – academically and otherwise, both on our campuses and beyond – is significantly affected by support that comes from staff providing services outside the classroom.  And that means from all of us, right here in this room. 

I said it before, and I’ll say it again.  We couldn’t do what we do – and what we do so well – without you.  It’s our job to make sure that others understand that, too.

We have set high goals for ourselves in the coming years, but they’re not beyond reach.  Working together, the impact of these efforts will be expanded access to a quality education, greater success for the students we enroll, and a Wisconsin proud of its leadership in an economy based on the know-how and innovation of its people.

With that, I’d like to open up the floor for questions.  As someone once said, “My job is to stir the pot when it gets too quiet – and to sit on the lid when it gets to bubbling too much.”  So, we’ll see which I need to do more of during this question period!  The floor is open …