It’s time to face reality; the UW System tuition freeze will be sticking around.
It’s one of the only things on Gov. Scott Walker’s agenda that’s still politically popular. While the governor would rather delay road projects rather than fund them, the Marquette University Law Poll showed that a majority of Wisconsinites want to increase revenues to fund roads. Wisconsinites recognize that our K-12 schools need more funding. As a result, Walker’s approval rating continues to hover below 40%.
At the same time, the UW isn’t going to get any significant state funding to make up for the lack of new tuition dollars. The state’s finances continue to be an embarrassment — irresponsible tax cuts to our wealthiest citizens and a refusal to accept federal Medicaid dollars have created a perpetual budget crunch. Any funds that can be scrounged together are going to go to the aforementioned K-12 schools and roads.
UW System President Ray Cross is aware of this. He is asking for the state to kick in an additional — and comparatively tiny — $42.5 million in the next budget cycle. That’s less than a 1% increase in the UW’s operating budget and only half of the new funding he asked for in the last budget cycle. That doesn’t even match the rate of inflation. Remember, that’s Cross’ optimistic budget request, not what he’s actually going to get.
With a tuition freeze and little to no additional state funding, Walker and the legislative Republicans are promising to keep the quality of the UW System the same in the face of less and less funding. Essentially, they are promising free stuff using economics that don’t work in the real world. Funny, that’s the talking point these same elected officials use against Democrats.
It’s unrealistic to keep prices flat and expect the quality of service to stay the same. The UW System doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Other states are investing in their colleges and universities again, and efforts to poach the best faculty doing the most innovative research are only going to increase.
Even if you expect UW employees to stay at their jobs with perpetually stagnant wages, there’s are a number of costs outside of the UW System’s control. Universities need a lot of software, for purposes ranging from administration to research to classwork. Those licenses aren’t cheap, and no one at Adobe says, “Oh, the University of Wisconsin System is under a tuition freeze so we won’t raise their prices for their software licenses over the next six years.”
The UW System, particularly the Madison and Milwaukee campuses, does quite well securing grant funding to make up for the loss of state and tuition dollars. But these grants come with a lot of strings attached. They don’t pay for heating, cooling and lighting buildings or taking out the trash. The UW System lucked out with a mild winter last year — nature being kinder than electoral cycles. Last winter’s heating bills were lower, but we can’t always count on warm winters.
With less funds, the money has to come from somewhere. Advising and course sections get dropped. Students face bottleneck courses that increase the time to graduation. Flat tuition is going to start making college more expensive for many Wisconsinites — four and a half years at flat tuition costs more than three and a half years of slightly higher tuition.
Still, campaigning to raise tuition is a losing prospect. The tuition freeze is popular enough that you see few Democrats asking to have it lifted. Instead, Democrats are using the hashtag #fundthefreeze, in one of those rare moments when they’ve managed to stumble upon an easy-to-understand, catchy talking point.
I think Democrats could even use the tuition freeze to their advantage. Walker is going to lean hard on college affordability if he runs for reelection. It would be a good strategy for the next Democratic gubernatorial candidate to pledge to continue the freeze and, at the same time, reinvest a hundred million dollars or more back into the UW System so we can make sure students are going to graduate on time.
If the Democratic candidate becomes governor, that pledge will put them in a good spot to negotiate with an Assembly that will likely still be controlled by Republicans.
Just imagine a Democratic governor in the spring of 2019 — “I want to keep the tuition freeze but I need the Republicans in the Legislature to do their job and approve the budget; otherwise we’ll be forced to put the burden of funding the university on the backs of college students and their families. If Republicans truly care about keeping college affordable, they’ll fund this budget.”
The tuition freeze is going to stick around a while but the era of diminishing UW budgets could be coming to an end.
[Editor's note: This post was updated to reflect more recent budget figures released by UW System.]