Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Enrollment Management at UW-Madison

UW-Madison is bringing a proposal before the UW System Board of Regents this week to change the cap on the percentage of undergraduates from out-of-state from 25 to 30%.

In this post, I'm going to focus on the factual basis for the proposal itself.  I'm not going to speak to the process through which it was brought to the Regents, which I am fairly certain violated shared governance. I'm just going to examine the veracity of statements the UW-Madison Administration has made in support of this proposal using publicly available data.  I think the numbers alone suggest a need for further consideration before any decisions can be made. This motion should be tabled.

In its proposal, Madison makes the following remarks:

1. The UW Admissions Policy counts Minnesota residents -- who receive tuition reciprocity--  in a separate category, and thus they are not counted as either residents or non-residents.  This is uncommon.  It means that the percent of out-of-state students (OOS) cannot be used to fully understand access for Wisconsin residents.  It leaves the general public with the impression that a cap of 25% on OOS means that Wisconsin residents comprise 75% of the institution.  They do not.  At UW-Madison, Wisconsin residents are 63% of the undergraduate enrollment.  

This calculation is especially important when comparing the percentage of OOS in UW System or Madison to the percentage at other institutions.  In repeatedly stating that UW-Madison is "alone in the Big 10" in having a cap on non-resident enrollment, the Administration neglects three facts:
  • Many schools in the Big 10 have alternative options for high- achieving students in the state-- another flagship, or a set of very highly respected private schools.  These help restrict the market of the Big 10 school for out-of-state students, such that a cap isn't needed. In addition, in one case a Big 10 school is private (Northwestern) and in two others, their origins make them defacto private (U. Michigan and Penn State). Those different missions make the comparison irrelevant.
  • When counting only Wisconsin residents as in-state students, the state ranks in the bottom 15 of state public institutions serving in-state residents.  Pennsylvania, Virginia, New York, Minnesota, North Carolina, Washington, Illinois, Ohio, Texas etc-- all have institutions enrolling a higher fraction of in-state students than we do. It cannot be said, then, that Madison is "behind the times" in enrolling out-of-state students.  It is behind-the-times in offering discounted tuition at UW-Madison to students in Minnesota, whose families are wealthier than those in Wisconsin. (Sidenote: Perhaps reciprocity could continue at other UW universities, where OOS enrollment is much lower and MN plays a more important role-- while ending reciprocity at Madison.)
2. This year, the enrollment composition of new freshmen at Madison changed.  According to the proposal, "The unanticipated and increased number of non-resident freshmen choosing to enroll at UW-Madison contributed to UW-Madison’s non-resident enrollment of 25.8%." This suggests that the unanticipated "surprise" was in the yield of non-residents-- specifically, the number of admitted students who chose to attend the university.

Let's take a closer look.  This document shows that this year, the number of applicants to UW-Madison went up by 51 students. The number of admitted students, however, went up by 1,214. In other words, UW-Madison accepted 54.6% of those who applied, up from 50.05% in 2011. Who were the students accepted at so much higher rates? Unsurprisingly, 61% of them were international students.  In other words, UW-Madison saw a 4% growth in the rate of applications among international students, and matched that with a 53% increase in the acceptance rate of those students (it jumped from 26.9 to 41.3%). There's no way that happened by accident-- admissions decisions are made by a thoughtful staff carefully overseen by a team of professionals.  Admissions, unlike yield, can be completely controlled by the institution.  Now, however,  the yield of those international students was 30.6%-- a number that Provost DeLuca apparently found surprising.  This probably because the yield the prior year was 20.5% but that was clearly an off year-- the average yield for international students over the prior nine years was 35.6%!  I'm sure the hard working people in Academic Planning knew better than to base their projections for yield on one year of data.

Therefore, it was clearly the decision to increase the admission rate of international students, and not the "unanticipated and increased number of non-resident freshmen choosing to enroll" that drove up the percent of non-resident students. 

That was the "surprise" in 2012.  Sure, Madison decided to admit more Wisconsin residents, despite a decline in applications, but that was clearly a strategic move to ensure that the cap wasn't further displaced.  The Administration made a calculated decision to go after international students, and now claims that "whoops we hit the cap"-- and asks that the cap be removed.

3. The document then goes on to make the case that OOS students contribute to the learning experience at UW-Madison.  This "diversity" argument relies heavily on the interaction occurring among students  on campus.

Regarding this, two facts should be noted:
  • OOS students attending UW-Madison are much wealthier than Wisconsin residents. This study by scholars at La Follette shows that both Minnesota students and those from other states have average family incomes of around $100,000 (MN) and up-- approaching $130,000 for those from other states. In comparison, the average family income of Wisconsin residents attending UW-Madison is under $80,000.  Such socioeconomic differences are not easily overcome on college campuses, and the documented reality in both research studies and on our own campus is that these students live in different worlds. "Lucky" is a dorm inhabited by the "Coasties" and inaccessible to most Wisconsin students.  Students recruited from out-of-state enjoy family resources and experiences that compel them to seek amenities at UW-Madison which Wisconsin residents simply don't demand (heck, they are saving on tuition compared to their likely private alternatives).  This in turn creates pressure on student fees and creates a "keeping up with the joneses" situation.  It would be helpful to see evidence that diverse socioeconomic interactions on campus and in classrooms are being fostered at Madison before we invest further in bringing more wealthy students-- as opposed to more low-income students-- to campus. 
  • In making its argument, the University seems to treat Minnesota students as if they are just like Wisconsin residents. In fact, they are not, demographically speaking. And they comprise 12% of undergraduates.  If the mix is 63% Wisconsin and 37% non-Wisconsin, is that insufficient geography diversity to ensure good learning experiences?  How much within-Wisconsin geographic diversity is achieved now?
4. The proposal promises to reserve at least 3,500 seats at UW-Madison for Wisconsin residents.  It notes, "Since the number of Wisconsin high school graduates is declining and will continue to
decline over the next several years, the proposal to commit to enrolling 3,500 Wisconsin resident new freshmen by admitting 200 more Wisconsin resident students represents an enrollment of a higher fraction of the high school class than in recent years, and a higher number than the average of the past several years."

Here, are additional facts needed for context.
  • While birth rates are declining, the fraction of students seeking to attend college is rising.  Rates of ACT-test taking are rising (and will go up further as it becomes mandatory) and so are FAFSA completion rates. These factors will eventually grow the Wisconsin resident applications.  There is little evidence of decreased interest in UW-Madison.  Applications and yields are down somewhat among Wisconsin residents, yes, but that decline coincided with the recession and Madison's tuition hike (Madison Initiative for Undergraduates). It cannot be said to be divorced (or necessarily related) to those changes.
  •  UW-Madison is already turning down about 1,000 well-qualified Wisconsin residents each year. This proposal addresses just one-fifth of that need.  It leaves 800 well-qualified students to very likely go out-of-state to college, or "undermatch" in-state. That is a form of brain drain currently not tracked (Madison only reports on where their accepted students go, not where their applicants who are not accepted go-- the latter would give a fuller picture of their enrollment management policy impacts). 
  • There is clear room for improvement in recruiting students to apply to Madison. This report indicates that at UW-Madison "efforts to increase the enrollments of students from smaller Wisconsin communities need continued and sustained focus on recruiting and outreach to high schools in these communities." Other efforts, such as going "test-optional" in acknowledgement of the systematic racial bias present in the ACT and SAT, would also boost the size of the applicant pool, and diversify it-- though it's sure to be met with racially-tinged charges of a "weakened applicant pool."
5. The proposal says that in order to fix the "mistake" of a higher-than-expected yield of out-of-state (international) students, "UW-Madison would have to enroll about 3,700 resident students in the fall new freshman class each year—a number that far exceeds historic levels and that would create additional financial pressures and bottlenecks."

But, the earlier statement said that Madison would commit to 3,500 seats. Are we to believe that 200 additional students are impossible to find and impossible to afford-- and would create "bottlenecks"-- despite the "Educational Innovation" going on around us?

Finally, shouldn't this have occurred to the Administration before it rashly made the decision to dramatically increase acceptances of international students? A decision it never discussed with shared governance bodies?

Caps are put into place by states to provide a balance against institutional behavior that is self-interested.   I wish it weren't needed here. But institutions respond to incentives.  The cap exists to protect Madison from its own rational impulses, requiring it to balance these with the needs of the state. No other check on the revenue-maximizing instincts of the Administration exists. And clearly, this Administration is mainly about maximizing revenue-- not about shared governance, not about access or affordability, and not about transparency.

The Administration claims that even with the cap lifted UW-Madison will not race to hit the 30% mark. I  see little reason to believe this.  Chancellor Ward is leaving campus, and there is no check on what will happen in his absence.  It's clear that the people in power under Biddy Martin are still running the show. Old habits die hard.