Emma Palasz

The value of a University of Wisconsin degree

Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker made a trip around the state in January to visit various technical colleges. In his most recent State of the State address, he vowed to allocate more funding toward education grants for technical colleges and fund more pre-apprenticeship and workforce training programs, according to a January statement. Walker’s college affordability plan is in response to a nationwide growing concern over rising costs of student loan debt, with nearly every presidential candidate claiming they have the right solution.

Walker’s solutions are based on the hope to fill skilled labor positions across the state, but his $250 million in cuts to the public University of Wisconsin System in the 2015-17 biennium budget are still facing backlash from students, community members, faculty and administration. While the intricacies of budgets behind state-funded universities are unceasingly complex, Walker’s emphasis on vocational schools and the need for skilled labor workers begs the question of the value of four-year institutions and particularly, liberal arts degrees. College of Letters and Science students at UW-Madison ought to know how their degree compares to that of other colleges and schools within UW-Madison, how they’ll likely fare in the workforce financially and data-driven reasoning behind why their financial outcome may be different from other students.

Post-Graduate Outlooks Across Schools and Colleges at UW-Madison

The College of Letters and Science at UW-Madison holds the largest number of undergraduate students on campus at 15,051 students in Fall 2015, according to 2015-16 UW-Madison Academic Planning and Institutional Research Data Digest report. This figure is more than every other UW-Madison’s undergraduate student count combined. The next-highest undergraduate enrollment is in the College of Engineering with 4,974 students.

APIR conducts a post-graduation plans questionnaire every year for undergraduates. Many, but not all, individual colleges and schools also survey students for data relating to percentage employed post-graduation. But the APIR survey responses provide a limited glimpse into post-graduation information. The questionnaire does not inquire about starting salary offers, and 56 percent of soon-to-be graduates participate in the questionnaire.

Some schools are more invested than others in discovering its students’ post-graduation plans and financial prospects, which alludes to how different schools view their students: as scholars only or as future employees. The School of Business produces an annual employment outcome report, detailing salary offers across majors in the school. The College of Engineering conducts a similar report, as does the College of Letters and Science, though its most recent data is in regards to 2012-13 graduates. The School of Nursing does not publish a report, but disclosed career-related data via email.

While these specific reports discuss post-graduation employment percentages, APIR provided the most consistent data. The questionnaire was not conducted by one school or college, and it used the same system for all students who filled it out.

From there, it became clear that while most UW students are in L&S, these students are not graduating with secured job prospects as much as other students. It is important to note that APIR’s questionnaire is sent out before students graduate, near the end of the spring semester.

The below graph indicates, from left to right, schools with the least percentage of employed students to the most. It is important to note that most-recent data was used for both measures: fall 2015 enrollment numbers for each college and 2014-15 career-related data.

Interestingly, L&S, the school with the most students, has the least percentage of employed students, while Nursing, a small program, has the highest percentage. Even in other multidisciplinary schools like School of Business and even CALS graduate more of their students into full-time time jobs, despite their student populations being smaller than L&S.

This is interesting considering L&S is one of few UW-Madison schools to keep track of its graduates’ success rates and salary offers. This shows its staff are committed to tracking destinations for its undergraduates, yet L&S students seem to fare worse than other schools in finding employment post-graduation. That means they are paying essentially the same tuition as students in other schools, but numbers show those tuition costs are not met with as generous of incoming salaries as other schools.

As Data Digest does not publish salary-related data, one must turn to individual schools and colleges. But some view starting salary information as confidential and do not keep records of what undergraduates earn once they leave the university. L&S, School of Business, College of Engineering and School of Nursing were the only schools on the UW-Madison campus who revealed either all or average salary data in time for this report. But the means of measuring these numbers are not consistent between schools.

This report reflects most-recent information only, obtained through specific school-conducted reports or, in the case of the School of Nursing, an email from Assistant Dean Karen Mittelstadt. Average alary data for this report is only based off of employed graduates; unemployed graduates are not skewing the salary averages.

After analyzing tuition rates for the past four years using data from The Office of the Registrar, a current in-state undergraduate senior’s total tuition for eight semesters in college is $41,613.92. For non-resident seniors graduating Spring 2016, four years equates to $109,612.64. That number varies for School of Business and College of Engineering students, who pay more tuition after admission. Also, because many schools and colleges, along with APIR, group Minnesota reciprocity and international students into the “non-residents” category, data analysis for this project reflects “non-residents” as one group.

When examining initial salary averages for post-grads between L&S, School of Business, College of Engineering and School of Nursing, out-of-state students, on average, would have to work a few years before earning back what they paid in four years of tuition alone. But the typical average salary post-graduation is higher than the in-state student’s four-year tuition total — except for in L&S, where the average salary, according to most-recent data, is more than $5,000 less than what they paid in for their undergraduate degree. When adjusting a four-year degree cost between 2009 and 2013, which would match the 2013 graduate’s career data information from L&S, their tuition still totals more than average salary post-graduation at $37,356.56.

While L&S students take up a majority of the school, data show those students are not reaping the benefits, salary-wise, of a degree from UW-Madison as much as students graduating from other schools. This begs the question: Are L&S students facing inequalities in service in some way that prevent them from attaining high-worth positions post-graduation?

Discrepancies Across Colleges and Schools

Analyzing how students are allocated resources is one way to determine how funds are being dispersed throughout different schools. Perhaps some schools receive greater resources within the classroom, which could lead to those students being more successful in finding post-graduate employment.

The resource that affects students the most within the classroom is, of course, faculty and staff. When analyzing faculty and staff to student ratios per school and college at UW-Madison, it is important to note that while L&S houses the most undergraduate students, total faculty and staff numbers do not reflect that size. Whereas the School of Pharmacy has more than five faculty members per undergraduate student, L&S has .3 faculty members per student. Schools of Business, Human Ecology and Nursing are worse, with .21, .21 and .17 faculty members per student, respectively. While these numbers cannot directly reflect a student’s post-graduation success, less faculty members per student implies less one-on-one interaction and potentially larger class sizes.

College of Engineering has more faculty members per student, and the average starting salary for those graduates is likewise higher than Business, SOHE and Nursing students.

Still, even with less faculty members per student than L&S, Business and Nursing students have higher starting salary averages than L&S students. This is likely due to the wide range of majors offered in L&S in comparison to Engineering, Nursing and Business. The L&S Career Initiative Alumni Survey did not provide salary outcomes by major, but it did specify that humanities and social science majors typically made between $30,000 and $39,000, while natural sciences majors typically earned between $40,000 and $49,999.

Rebekah Pryor Pare, director of L&S Career Initiative and Career Services, said some majors, such as computer science, typically have a 100 percent job placement rate before they graduate. Mathematics and statistics students, as well, fare better in the job market than other L&S majors, Pryor Pare said.

In general, it is also interesting to note that, after multiplying student enrollment totals for each school or college with resident or non-resident tuition, and comparing that to each school’s budget, the result is not as linear as one might expect.

The trend between total budget for each school, which can be found using the UW System Redbook, and the total tuition each school receives makes sense overall. L&S has the most students, receives the most tuition and has the largest budget. But other schools, such as CALS and Education, have a somewhat higher budget than they are receiving tuition for. While their budgets are larger, when turning back to the visualization about percentage of employed graduates, CALS and Education fare just about the same as L&S, at 62.5 and 62.4 percent employed, respectively. But School of Education Career Center spokesperson Charlene Walker emphasized in an email that more than 40 percent of School of Education graduates find employment in the summer, which may skew the data provided by the APIR post-graduation plan questionnaire.

All schools, of course, have a much higher budget than the tuition they receive, also considering that a student’s tuition is not directly allocated to their school alone, but across campus for segregated fees and other uses, according to Data Digest.

Also, the size of each bubble represents the student enrollment size for each college or school, based on fall 2015 enrollment. Again, this should correlate with the amount of tuition received and budget of each college/school, increasing with size. Yet the School of Education has a significantly smaller student size compared to the rest of the bubbles around it.

This graph shows that clearly, there are other factors being considered when budgeting for schools besides enrollment size, and why those budgets don’t necessarily align with post-graduate success for students is still a mystery.


Overall, the biggest difference in projected success for L&S students compared to undergraduates from other schools and colleges on campus is the significantly lower average starting salary, as well as a lower likelihood of being employed. But because the most recent data L&S Career Services could provide was from 2012-13, the data for average entering salary could be higher now, almost three years later. Besides, Pryor Pare said part of the reason L&S students — especially those studying humanities or social sciences — might not find as much success on their job market as their Business or Engineering counterparts is because they do not know how to market themselves to employers. Pryor Pare said because liberal arts students often study abstract topics, they find it difficult to articulate those skills in ways that would translate in a job interview.

Pryor Pare also said politicians, particularly Walker, who have trouble directly connecting a liberal arts major to a job, do not see a use for such a degree.

“I don’t think [Walker] is mal-intended by criticizing the liberal arts, but I think he, like many students, don’t understand what a liberal arts degree’s purpose is,” Pryor Pare said.

But it became clear while putting together this report that overall, UW does little to gather post-graduate information about its students, particularly data relating to salaries and employment outlooks. Returning to the nationwide concern surrounding the cost of college and student loans, UW’s lack of complete career-related data almost prompts Walker’s push toward funding technical colleges, where students’ degrees can be more clearly connected to a skilled labor job.

L&S students may not be finding employment as easily as students in Engineering, Business or Nursing Schools, but as Pryor Pare pointed out, L&S students should learn how to market abstract skills in a job interview in order to secure more post-graduate positions.

But non-numeral data show that while L&S students may not see as positive of a post-graduate employment outlook as students in other schools, 77 percent of L&S graduated who were employed full time said their UW-Madison education gave them an advantage compared to other newly graduated employees, according to the L&S Career Initiative Alumni Survey for 2012-13 graduates. Of every type of student — unemployed, working part time, attending grad school, or working full time — at least 91 percent of each category said they would recommend UW-Madison to a potential student. Finally, 50 percent of unemployed graduates taking the survey said they would still choose the same major if they had to start over.

Therefore, one could say even if someone viewed the entire purpose of going to college as a résumé-builder for finding a job, L&S students, who are employed at a significantly lesser rate than students in other UW-Madison schools, do not regret their decision to attend UW-Madison. Half of those unemployed would still not even change their major if they attended college all over again. This shows what numeric data cannot: Students graduating from UW do not regret their choice, and often their major, which, after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on tuition and other costs, seems like a pretty significant sentiment, and speaks to the real value of a liberal arts degree and UW-Madison.