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On Campus Grants

Up Against Tuition Freeze, UW System Seeks More From State

Tom Giffey |

“I didn’t come to Eau Claire to preside over a downward spiral to mediocrity.” – Chancellor James Schmidt, UW-Eau Claire

A quarter of a billion dollar cut to the UW System in the last two-year state budget caused a ripple of reactions across university campuses and the state itself. At UW-Eau Claire alone, the cut came to $7.7 million, which led to the loss of 179 full-time equivalent jobs, nearly 200 fewer course sections, and a 14 percent increase in class sizes.

“Frankly, it’s happened across the country, but it’s worse here,” explained UWEC Chancellor James Schmidt of the decline in state support for higher education in Wisconsin.

“I didn’t come to Eau Claire to preside over a downward spiral to mediocrity,” the chancellor, who just began his fourth year at UWEC, said in a recent interview with Volume One. While UWEC still offers a quality education, Schmidt said, “the direction is wrong.”

In recent years, the university budget has been squeezed from both ends: Not only has state funding declined, but Gov. Scott Walker and the state Legislature have frozen tuition, preventing state universities from backfilling their budgets with dollars from students. While this may have kept some students from being priced out of higher education, it comes at a cost, Schmidt believes: “One of my mentors said access without quality is no bargain,” he said.

However, the 2017-19 state budget offers an opportunity to reverse this trend, and Schmidt and other UW System leaders have proposed what they call a modest, strategic budget increase: The UW System’s just-released budget proposal for 2017-19 includes a request for an extra $42.5 million from the state. The Board of Regents is expected to vote on the budget request on Aug. 18. The document will then go to the state Department of Administration, which will help Gov. Scott Walker shape the two-year state budget, which in turn will be sent to the state Legislature early next year.

Freeze Questioned

It the tuition freeze makes it into the 2017-19 state budget, as Gov. Scott Walker has indicated it will, it will mean UW System tuition will have been frozen for six straight years.

Schmidt says he understands why the freeze is popular. However, he argues it has serious drawbacks. Considering the university’s budget pinch has led to a decrease in the number of courses offered, Schmidt questioned the “savings” the tuition freeze has provided to students. “If that means they can’t get the courses they need, and they end up staying a fifth year, it is the epitome of penny wise, pound foolish,” he said.

And this has a ripple effect on the economy, Schmidt argued: Students take longer to get their degrees, and thus longer to enter the workforce, which means less income tax revenue for the state and less economic growth by employers. Schmidt says he has encouraged business leaders from the region to speak out about the impact a strong UW System has on their bottom lines.

“We’re everybody’s fourth priority,” Schmidt said of how the UW System ranks in the eyes of both Republican and Democratic politicians. Someone has to make it a No. 1 priority, and that could be the business community, Schmidt said.

While an extended tuition freeze seems inevitable, Schmidt notes that a 3 percent increase in tuition would cost a student about $1,000 over four years. He contends this is a good deal for students if they are able to graduate in four years instead of five or more.

Schmidt pointed that tuition and other sources of revenue account for 80 percent of UWEC’s budget, while only 20 percent of the budget comes directly from the state. By contrast, in the 1970s, only 41 percent of UWEC’s budget came from tuition and other sources and 59 percent was from the state. Because of this shift, the cut in state funding for UWEC made in the 2015-17 state budget was particularly significant: The $7.7 million reduction amounted to 26 percent of the state funding that UWEC has the ability to allocate. (While other funds, such as those for building projects, also come from the state, those simply pass through UWEC’s budget and can’t be shifted to other priorities.)

Seeking Reinvestment

A reading of the budgetary tea leaves suggests UW System leaders might have better luck advocating for a small boost in state funding. “Walker is still considering more money for (the) UW if system schools meet performance benchmarks,” The Associated Press reported Aug. 2, “but he hasn’t said what the schools would have to accomplish to win that money or how much funding would be available.”

Schmidt notes that UWEC is making progress toward meeting numerous benchmarks, such as increasing student retention (83 percent of first-year students come back) and four-year graduation rates (currently 34 percent, with a goal of 50 percent).

UW System President Ray Cross said system officials have created a new “strategic framework,” which includes goals such as getting more Wisconsinites through the “educational pipeline,” reducing the time it takes to get a degree, “strengthening research and creativity,” and giving each student experience with a Wisconsin business. The framework will be the basis for the system’s 2017-19 state budget request, Cross said in an Aug. 2 column.

“Our request will be modest, but continued budget cuts and frozen tuition cannot be sustained,” he said. “When adjusted for inflation, the revenue coming to the UW System today from the State of Wisconsin is the lowest in the System’s history. Neighboring states, by contrast, are investing in their public university systems.”

Other university leaders expressed similar sentiments. “It definitely means we do more with less,” UW-Stout Chancellor Bob Meyer told the Leader-Telegram recently. “We have stretched beyond the breaking point. We really have some recruitment challenges. We’re really being handcuffed.”

Lawmakers’ opinions about the likelihood of a continued tuition and budget freeze were divided along party lines. State Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, noted in a press release that, because of inflation, freezing tuition and leaving the budget unchanged would essentially mean a cut to the UW System.

“It’s inconceivable that Gov. Walker and the Republicans in the Legislature inherited one of the best university systems in the world and have done nothing but attack it,” said Wachs, the ranking Democrat on the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities. According to Wachs, “Only eight states invest less in their higher education system than Wisconsin.” While he acknowledged that tuition freezes help students in the short-term, Wachs said that the lack of added state support in the long term created an “unsustainable higher education system.”

Meanwhile, state Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, lauded the freeze’s extension. “The Republican tuition freeze has actually delivered significant savings for students and families,” he said. “It has meant a lower debt-load for both students and parents. The freeze must be extended to protect students and families from a spike in tuition at the hands of UW System officials who continually fail to deliver promised reforms and savings.”

UW System: A Shrinking Budget

$250 million
cut to UW System in the 2015-17 state budget

$7.7 million
cut to UW-Eau Claire in the 2015-17 state budget

faculty and staff full-time equivalent positions cut at UWEC

14 percent
increase in UWEC class sizes between spring 2015 and 2016

Source: UW-Eau Claire