When analyzing statistics for a living, one occasionally encounters shocking numbers that make one think, "surely this can't be right."

Further investigation usually reveals a mistake. But sometimes the numbers aren't wrong. They're just really surprising.

For instance, Wisconsin state government spends 7.4 times as much on each prison inmate as it does on each college student.

Combined, Census Bureau and Justice Department data, reveal that in fiscal years 2000-04, the Wisconsin state government spent $48,773 annually per inmate (adjusted for inflation).

No one doubts that prisons are expensive to operate, but it is not clear why this needed to be 40 percent above the national average and 44 percent higher than the state's per capita income. If Wisconsin had spent the same as the national average, the state would have saved $301 million annually.

By themselves, these numbers are fairly alarming. In comparison to other fiscal priorities, though, the numbers are really alarming. High spending on corrections crowds out other services, such as higher education.

Perhaps this is partly why Wisconsin spending on higher education was 12 percent below the national average during 2000-04. Combined Census Bureau and Department of Education data indicate that Wisconsin spent $6,627 annually per college student (adjusted for inflation). The state spent 7.4 times as much on each prisoner as on each college student, 60 percent above the national average of 4.6.

These numbers reveal disturbing fiscal priorities. They suggest that the people of Wisconsin place a relatively high value on corrections and a relatively low value on education. Surely this can't be right.

If these figures alone are not sufficient to suggest misplaced priorities, consider the fiscal repercussions. For each year of college, individual earnings in Wisconsin rise by an average of $5,260 per year, increasing state and local tax revenues by $628 annually. Compared to high school graduates, college graduates in Wisconsin are 3.6 times less likely to receive Medicaid, 3.4 times less likely to be unemployed, 5.8 times less likely to receive worker's compensation, and 11.3 times less likely to be incarcerated.

These four effects translate into an additional annual fiscal savings of about $214 for each year of college per student.

Thus, the average annual payoff to the state per year of college per student is at least $842, and this occurs every year over about a 45-year working career.

Many students are willing and able to pay for college. But not all potential students can afford it, and this is where the state really loses out.

Given the astonishing differences in incarceration rates between high school and college graduates, and the astonishing cost differences between corrections and college, the implications of Wisconsin's current fiscal priorities are huge.

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