Provost Scholz: Value of UW-Madison education grows during pandemic

Provost John Karl Scholz authored this guest post about the cost of tuition and the value of a University of Wisconsin-Madison degree.

The Covid-19 pandemic has challenged higher education institutions worldwide to be innovative in how they deliver learning. I am proud of the way UW-Madison staff and faculty, as well as students, adapted to meet this challenge. We continue to offer a world-class education, with courses taught by some of the finest faculty and instructional staff in the world. That hasn’t changed.

With a shift from face-to-face instruction to greater use of remote delivery, however, there have been many questions about value. Some wonder if, since some classes won’t be offered in-person this fall, the cost of attendance for students should be reduced.

The costs for UW-Madison to deliver world-class instruction have increased during this pandemic, and the prices of any good or service depends critically on costs. To meet the challenge of enhancing the quality of instruction, we have invested aggressively to improve course design and remote learning experiences. We are also investing heavily to lessen risk on campus, developing a rigorous approach to COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, and putting more resources toward campus health services and student support.

UW-Madison operates in a highly competitive market. For reasons similar to those mentioned above, our peers are not discounting tuition. In these uncertain, difficult times, the economic value of an outstanding college degree will only increase.

We hear from many sentiments along the following lines: “the experience is different,” or “this is not what we thought we were paying for.” We recognize that the world has changed with the pandemic. We are listening carefully to experts on health, doing all we can to minimize health risks to our students, staff, and faculty, while at the same time, providing a world-class education. The campus experience will indeed be different, but then almost every aspect of society is different in the pandemic. All colleges and universities are navigating the same challenges. We have pride in the Badger approach to these challenges. Badgers dig in.

I know that many are struggling with the choice of attending this fall or delaying enrollment in hopes of a treatment or vaccine on the horizon. Except in exceptional circumstances, we do not recommend delaying college. Far too many students who drop out or delay never complete their degree. I do know that the opportunity cost of delaying college attendance is considerable. The value of a college degree likely increases in difficult times. Moreover, one delays entry into the post-college workforce (which is typically characterized by higher earnings than those who do not attend), if one delays their studies.

The returns on a college degree are higher now than at any time in decades, and these benefits will be even more apparent as we move through and recover from the pandemic. College graduates earn far more than non-college graduates. The average American who graduates from college can expect to earn $500,000 more in lifetime income, net of college costs (including opportunity costs), compared to those graduating with a high school diploma.

University training gives you skills that this global economy values more and more each day. It’s not by chance that unemployment among college graduates is far lower than among other groups.

We remain sensitive to students and families who have experienced sharp reductions in income or lost employment altogether. We have heard from many of these families and have assisted them in re-evaluating student financial aid offerings to offset costs. We hope that students and families in these situations will continue to reach out to the Office of Student Financial Aid regarding a special circumstances appeal. These appeals enable us to re-evaluate eligibility for federal, state and institutional aid programs, including grants, based on new information not previously submitted via the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This spring, UW-Madison provided millions of dollars of emergency support to students. We will continue to offer emergency support throughout the fall term, including assistance to help students meet other basic needs. Students interested in these resources may visit

In the end, the assessment of whether anything is worth its price is a personal decision. We are proud of our UW-Madison education. We know that a degree from UW-Madison is respected globally, and the number of students seeking admission continues to set records each year. We believe deeply that UW-Madison remains one of the best values in higher education. We are doing all that we can to keep it that way.