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Gov. Tony Evers proposed $190 million in new investments in the University of Wisconsin System over the 2021-2023 biennium, part of a budget address Tuesday that also expanded funding for technical colleges and college access and affordability.

In his proposal, Evers nearly doubled the System's request for $95.7 million more than the previous biennial budget. Interim System President Tommy Thompson called the budget "probably the best budget for the university in about 20 years — since I was governor."

It included funding for nearly every aspect of the UW System’s ambitious request, though the tuition freeze, now in its eighth year, remains a burden on the UW System. Neither Evers nor System leaders advocated to lift the freeze this year, given the COVID-19 pandemic’s financial burden on students. But the governor recommended over $50 million in aid to help offset losses: “While we’re going to freeze tuition, we’re going to fund that freeze,” he said.

“Our higher education institutions have always been an economic driver for our state, and we need to double down if we’re going to bounce back,” Evers said. “Our universities and technical college system have a proud and proven history of not only preparing students to enter the workforce, but generating billions of dollars of economic activity statewide. … It’s an investment that will pay dividends for our future.”

'An excellent budget'

Despite Evers’ history as an educator and state schools superintendent, some critics have grown wary of his standing as an “education governor,” especially after the UW System bore the brunt of his 5% spending cuts last biennium. But higher education researchers and advocates processed his 2021-23 budget as hopeful and positive, marking a move toward more aggressive investments in Wisconsin schools.

The proposed $190 million hike equates to about $132 million when factoring in continuing costs, Thompson said at a news conference Thursday, but he still called it a "huge increase" and an "excellent budget." It includes $40 million — $20 million each fiscal year — in general operational funding for the System.

“The budget shows that the governor recognizes the value we can deliver to all Wisconsinites, as we have during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Thompson said in a news release Tuesday. “Where there is a problem, the UW wants to help — and the governor’s budget will allow us to do just that on some of Wisconsin’s toughest problems.”

Thompson’s proposal included seven initiatives to improve research and affordability, nearly all of which were approved to some degree by the governor. The first is a $39 million expansion of UW-Madison’s “Bucky’s Tuition Promise” to all 13 System campuses, a grant program that covers tuition and fees for students with a household adjusted gross income of $60,000 or less.

UW-Madison education professor Nicholas Hillman said he was pleasantly surprised to see increases to higher education.

“Finally Wisconsin’s like other states investing and putting money into appropriations. It made me feel like part of the club,” he said.

Programs like Bucky’s Tuition Promise and similar programs nationwide can simplify aid for students with automated application processes and fewer administrative burdens, Hillman said.

Evers also allocated $2 million toward agriculture research positions, $9 million toward freshwater research, $10 million toward student mental and behavioral health services and $5 million toward education for people incarcerated in Wisconsin prisons. The program would involve a collaboration between the UW System and the Department of Corrections, which Thompson has championed to expand education access and reduce recidivism.

“The things I saw in the budget seemed to be evidence-based, just smart recommendations,” Hillman said. “It seems to be an efficient use of money to give and target money to low-income students. You get more bang for your buck that way. The politics of this will certainly get in the way, but from my read of it, this did not come across as a political document.” 

Meanwhile, Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, criticized Evers’ budget as unrealistic, saying it would behoove legislators to at least address a potential lift on the tuition freeze. As the budget makes its way to the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee, Murphy plans to discuss with lawmakers various alternatives moving forward, including a continued freeze, a tuition cap or a tuition set by the Board of Regents.

"My job is to present the pros and cons of each of those," Murphy said. “I’m a pretty big proponent and supporter of the UW System, and I’m going to fight for trying to help them as much as I can."

College access and affordability

Evers increased funding for Wisconsin Grants, a financial aid program administered by the Higher Educational Aids Board. He recommended $18.6 million for the UW System, $6.9 million for technical colleges, $144,600 for tribal colleges and $8.6 million for private, nonprofit colleges.

The program currently benefits over 64,000 recipients, said Rolf Wegenke, president of the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. If approved, non-resident tuition exemptions would also make the aid newly available to students including Native American tribal members, undocumented people and active-duty service members and their families in other states.

Beyond the System, Evers proposed $36 million over the biennium for the Wisconsin Technical College System, which serves 16 campuses. WTCS President Morna Foy said in a news release Wednesday that Evers’ announcement “sets the stage” for positive budget deliberations.

“These investments are necessary in a time of historic transformation,” Foy said. “Wisconsin’s technical colleges will continue to be at the forefront in responding to rapid, continuous shifts in the specific education and talent development needs of students, employers and communities throughout Wisconsin.”

The budget goals to maintain the percentage of graduates employed six months after graduation at 90% and the annual number of minority graduates at 4,500 students. To do so, Evers recommended doubled funding for the Minority Undergraduate Retention Grant program, which offers students up to $2,500 annually in financial aid.

A year after creating a task force on student debt, Evers proposed about $345,000 for an Office of Student Loan Ombudsman within the state Department of Financial Institutions with two full-time employees. The office would establish a student loan “borrower bill of rights” to help distribute information for education borrowers in a timely, fair manner and revoke loan licenses.

Carole Trone, a board member of the nonprofit Wisconsin Coalition for Student Loan Debt, said new ombudsman oversight will help consolidate informational resources for borrowers.

“For a lot of individuals, student loan debt is complicated, and it can be scary and it can be hard to know what the answers are,” Trone said. “What we can do is make sure that it’s very clear to borrowers what the options are so that they can understand what loan debt is, how they can minimize that debt. 

Over 60% of Wisconsin graduates have student loan debt averaging of about $30,000. Though President Joe Biden has expressed willingness to cancel up to $10,000 in student loan debt, he has disappointed higher education advocates by refusing more ambitious forgiveness plans.

Financial flexibility

Evers also recommended that the Board of Regents, an 18-member body appointed on a staggered basis by the governor, be given the authority to obtain credit extensions for short-term borrowing. Thompson and UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank have repeatedly called for borrowing authority, an option available to most peer institutions.

The budget “includes critical flexibilities to ensure that UW-Madison has the tools to operate like a modern flagship campus,” Blank said in a news release Tuesday. “I look forward to continuing to work with the governor and legislative leaders through the budget process.”

Further, Evers supported authorizing the Board of Regents to direct the State of Wisconsin Investment Board to invest designated program revenues outside the fund, another means of diversifying revenue streams.

Blank has said more flexibility in investing working capital could mean millions more dollars annually. UW-Madison faces $318 million in net pandemic-related losses through March, though Blank told Regents that it can return to normal with a “tight budget” over the next two years. 

Evers rejected the System’s request for a reduction in reporting requirements from about 45 to 30 annual state-mandated reports. The requirements call for “significant administrative effort at the campus level to compile and are rarely reviewed or employed for a public policy objective,” according to the System.