WAICU President Talks About WAICU and Helping Provide Financial Aid to Wisconsin Students

The Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities was created in 1961 and recognized in law as the official organization of Wisconsin’s private nonprofit colleges and universities. The organization performs functions that would otherwise be performed by state agencies, without receiving direct operating support from Wisconsin taxpayers. All 24 WAICU members are nonprofit, fully accredited, degree-granting institutions of higher learning.

According to WAICU information (The 2016 WAICU-pedia):

  • The organization includes the following members: Alverno, Bellin, Beloit, Cardinal Stritch, Carroll, Carthage, Columbia College of Nursing, Concordia, Edgewood, Lakeland, Lawrence, Marian, Marquette, Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, Milwaukee School of Engineering, Mount Mary, Nashotah House, Northland, Ripon, Silver Lake, St. Norbert, Viterbo, and Wisconsin Lutheran.
  • The organization’s members graduate more than 13,800 students annually; they grant 24% of all the bachelor’s degrees in the state, and 37% of all the graduate degrees.
  • 20% of WAICU undergraduates are minorities.
  • The average class size is 17 students.
  • 31% of WAICU students are low-income.
  • The average price for undergraduate tuition and fees during 2013-14 was $28,533, the average freshman aid package was $23,294, meaning students paid an average net tuition cost of $5,239. (Average tuition for Wisconsin’s four-year public universities was $8,219).
  • WAICU students have a 4,4% default rate on student loans: Wisconsin average is 9.2%, National average is 11.8%.
  • WAICU graduation rates for completing a degree in 4 years are 68% higher than other four-year Wisconsin colleges.

In an interview with The Wheeler Report, WAICU President Dr. Rolf Wegenke talked about the success of the WAICU schools, the challenges the organization faces, and the new online governance board.

What is your mission, and what are your responsibilities?

Our mission is working together for educational opportunity. We are the official organization for Wisconsin’s private, non-profit colleges and universities.  We take our mission very seriously; I wish more people would ask. In everything that we do, we literally ask ourselves ‘how does this advance educational opportunity?’ Our main interest is supporting student aid, both through private philanthropy and federal and state governments.  We don’t ask the legislature for money for WAICU, or for our members.  We are here to support students having educational opportunity, which means financial aid.  That is our priority.

Our Board of Directors is the 24 college presidents. We have a wide range of programs.  We have student access programming, where we run school counselor workshops and private colleges week.  All the programs are to help students and their families figure out how to pick a college, how to apply to a college, and how to apply for financial aid. We also run cost-saving collaborations.  We now administer over 40 programs designed to help our members control their costs. Every year, we can document that we save our members over $20 million. One example that is prominent is our technology consortium. That means that 10 of our members have gone together on a common administrative system. First we had to get agreement on 54,000 requirements, that took us three years to prepare us to bid. Then we went through the bidding process. Then we selected a vendor. The WAICU staff went to the participating campuses and walked them through the implementation, and helped them re-engineer their business processes so they could take the maximum advantage of the new technology. WAICU is then responsible for continued training. We saved our members roughly 80% of what it would have cost them if they had gone through with a new system on their own. All of these services are related to our mission because we are controlling costs. It can enable our members to provide more private and institutional aid to students.  That is something we are particularly proud of; our commitment to our students.

People don’t understand how much aid is available when you enroll in a private college. For the last eight years, the net tuition has been under $5,500.  Over 2/3 of the grant aid that students receive is privately raised, some by this organization, but overwhelmingly it is by the colleges themselves. We encourage people to get the “right fit” for their students.

What are the advantages to WAICU schools?

The average class size across our campuses is 17 students.  We think that may be coming down to 16. That’s an advantage.

Another advantage is our programs are direct admit. A student going to some public campuses may complete their first two years but can’t get into the nursing program because they haven’t been admitted because the program is full. We don’t do that.  If you want to be a nurse, (more than half of our members have nursing programs), you are directly admitted as a freshman.  That’s not a guarantee that if you flunk you’ll maintain your status in the nursing program.  Direct admit means you have the opportunity to get in, you don’t have to wait to find out. We offer virtually every field. We produce graduates in all the critical occupations.

We feel we are a public service and a public good for the State of Wisconsin.  We feel we are making a difference. The reason that we are able to do that is because we are private non-profit.  We have to be flexible and respond to what the needs are in the market place.  The marketplace is composed of both the employers and the students. What people don’t often realize is we are very responsive and very entrepreneurial. We were the first to have complete degrees online.  We were the first to have flexible degrees, to give credit for prior learning, to have night and weekend programs.

What are the biggest challenges for WAICU?

I think the misconception is that we are elite enclaves of the rich. Which is far from true.  We actually enroll and graduate a larger percentage of low-income and minority students than does the public system. For some of our members, like Alverno College, almost 65% of their students are classified as low-income. The important thing about that is we don’t just enroll low-income students and not graduate them.  You have a 68% better chance of graduating in four years at a Wisconsin private college. That’s for majority and minority students. Almost daily I hear that people believe private colleges are only for the rich.  Families are missing opportunities because of that perception.  We are able to make this promise because of our commitment to financial aid for students, but the other part of it is the small class size. That individual attention that you get at a private college allows students to get out in four years and start earning. Another thing we have is a low default rate on student loans, 4.4%.  The reason we have such a low default rate is because students are done in four years so they are borrowing less, and we make financial aid available to them. Wisconsin has a talent shortage; we are really lagging the country. In this state by 2020, 62% of the jobs of the future will require a post-secondary degree. We need to go into those populations, the low-income and minority, that aren’t currently participating and get it across to them that there are options for them.  These colleges are an asset for the state. If the WAICU schools went away, the UW would need six additional public campuses, at 10,000 students each, to replace the number of students we are educating at no expense to the taxpayer.

What is your role working with the K-12 system?

We work with K-12 in so many ways. We work with individual school districts, so that our teachers are prepared.  We have 18 teacher preparation programs. Increasingly federal law is rating K-12 schools partially on the performance of their graduates. Now, the federal government is rating teachers based on the performance of the K-12 graduates. From there, they are rating teacher preparation programs. We are being held accountable for what comes out of the k-12 classroom because our teachers are there.

Tell me about your career development programs.

We administer the non-profit internship program from this office. We also have career services group which is administered from one of our 30 educational groups, WIPCCC. They provide a whole range of services.  There are websites where employers can come and tell what they are looking for and post their internship opportunities.  They all have extensive internship programs.  They also have an annual job fair.  The fair has exploded in size.  We used to hold it on a member campus, but the number of businesses that want to participate has increased so we now hold it at State Fair Park. Additionally, each of our members have additional career services programs on their campuses.

Does your organization get grouped together with for-profit colleges, and how do you try to prevent that?

We are very careful not to give blanket condemnation of the for-profit sector, but we do feel the need to point out that a large part of defaults and a large part of the student debt crisis, I think over 80%, is attributed to students that enrolled but did not graduate from a for-profit institution.  That is what has caused the crisis.  It is not UW; it is not WAICU members.  You hear that students can’t get a mortgage because of all their debt.  If you drill down into those figures, graduates have no trouble getting a mortgage.  It’s those that didn’t graduate are generally in the for-profit sector.  It is hard for us to differentiate ourselves from them because they call themselves private colleges. They call themselves colleges and universities.  All we can do is rely on word of mouth. Some for-profits are better than others.  It would not be appropriate for us to comment on all of them. The federal government certifies accrediting agencies, and they have just signaled that they are considering canceling the accrediting body that accredits the for-profit sector. Which would mean their students would not qualify for federal or state student aid. You cannot get Wisconsin state aid for for-profit colleges, and it has been that way forever. It has come up in the legislature, but they have voted it down.

What is the Distance Learning Authorization Board?

We worked together with the UW, technical colleges, the Governor’s office and key legislators to help create that.  The Educational Approval Board is on the DLAB, as are the Tribal Colleges, as am I, and Ray Cross from the UW, and Morna Foy from the Technical Colleges.  The purpose of that new board is to allow colleges and universities in this state to have reciprocity when it comes to regulation of online education.  Right now under the federal program integrity rules, if you want to offer online classes, and it will cross state lines, you have to go to all 50 states and pay their registration fees and be regulated by them. It costs so much money that it almost kills online learning. The Regional Higher Education Compacts, I am a Commissioner for the Midwest Compact, have set up a series of reciprocity agreements so that you only have to be certified in your home state.  Then the other states participating in the reciprocity will recognize your online programs.  We didn’t have a board that covered all sectors.  The bill was brought forward by Sen. Harsdorf and Rep. Ballweg to create DLAB. The sole purpose was for applying for eligibility for Wisconsin colleges and universities for applying in the online reciprocity agreements.  It is another example of how WAICU is an official organization of the State because in creating this new board, each of the sectors agreed, and it is written into the statutes, that we will absorb all of the costs. Instead of hiring staff, we’re providing this service without taxpayer support. WAICU, UW, and WTCS are absorbing it. The state delegated that responsibility to us, but we are not a government agency.

Final thoughts?

One thing I would circle back on is the financial aid.  Wisconsin is 32nd in the United States in the amount of student aid it provides for students.  We really lag other states. It can have such an impact in avoiding defaults, assuring on-time graduation, and meeting the employment needs of the state. We have never been a state that historically invested much in student aid.  My job is to get that message across.  The State needs to do more with governmental aid.