Students at UW-Madison today pay more than twice as much on tuition, housing and other college-related costs as their Badger peers did three decades ago.
In the mid-1980s, a Wisconsin resident paid the inflation-adjusted equivalent of just less than $12,000 annually to attend the state’s flagship public university and live in Madison. This year, UW-Madison estimates it will cost $24,736.
For nearly 30 years, through rounds of state funding cuts and tuition increases, the cost of attending UW-Madison increased at a higher rate than inflation each year. The main culprit has been tuition — the largest single cost college students pay and the one that has been rising at the steepest rate, now more than three times as expensive as it was in the mid-1980s. A tuition freeze in place since 2013 has kept that price nearly flat in recent years at about $10,400.
With concern over student loan debt growing, the figures are yet another illustration of how the challenge of paying for college is far greater for this generation of students than it was for their parents or grandparents.
Higher education experts say the trend at UW-Madison mirrors what has happened at public universities nationwide, where tuition has risen primarily in response to dwindling state support.
“Appropriations per student have been cut in nearly every state,” said Christine Keller, vice president for research and policy analysis at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.
Funding for the University of Wisconsin System has been cut in five of the last six two-year state budgets.
“With that funding gap, what institutions have been forced to do is to close that through greater tuition revenue,” Keller said.
The UW Board of Regents last week approved a UW-Madison proposal to increase the number of out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition.
University officials acknowledge financial aid has not kept up with the rising cost of attending college, and experts say that combination has made it harder for low- and moderate-income students to attend UW-Madison.
Noel Radomski, executive director of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, said he sees an “emerging pattern” of increasing costs and insufficient financial aid that threatens to reduce access for many Wisconsin families. He cites the decreasing number of first-generation students who have enrolled in the university’s recent freshman classes even as those classes have grown.
“Is this what taxpayers and legislators want for UW-Madison — do we want it only for the well-to-do?” Radomski said.
Other costs on the rise
Tuition is not the only rising cost college students have to worry about.
Housing and food costs have increased by 65 percent over their inflation-adjusted levels from the mid-1980s; books are 81 percent more expensive. Those costs, plus other expenses such as travel, make up 58 percent of the cost to attend UW-Madison.
When Pablo Montes transferred to the university as a sophomore, he was homeless for his first semester, sleeping on a friend’s couch because he couldn’t afford a place to stay. Later, that same friend helped cover some of his rent costs when he found an apartment.
Montes, a Beloit native and first-generation college student, eventually found a room available for just less than $400 per month in a student cooperative, which he says was the only place he could afford in Madison. This year, he works as a resident adviser in a UW dorm, which comes with free housing.
“My (price) range was very different than the range that Madison housing gives,” said Montes, president of UW’s Working Class Student Union.
The UW-Madison office of financial aid estimates a student living frugally will spend $1,076 per month on rent, utilities and food.
While the tuition freeze championed by Gov. Scott Walker has mostly leveled off the price of attending UW-Madison since it went into effect in 2013, non-tuition costs have continued to rise.
Montes avoids buying the books assigned in his classes to save money, and spent two years on food stamps before getting a scholarship that covers many of his costs this year. Another Working Class Student Union member, Emily Biersdorf, shares a bedroom with another student to keep monthly rent at her off-campus apartment to $400.
Both work multiple jobs while they are in school — Biersdorf works 20 hours per week, while Montes puts in 40. He will graduate with nearly $20,000 in student loan debt; she estimates she’ll have about $35,000.
Half of UW-Madison graduates in the class of 2013 held some amount of student loan debt, and owed a median amount of $25,664, according to the Project on Student Debt, a program of the independent nonprofit Institute for College Access & Success.
As they watch the Madison skyline fill with luxury developments — one-bedroom units in the just-opened Hub apartment building start at $1,500 — both say they would like to see less expensive student housing be more of a priority.
“Going to college is hard enough,” Biersdorf said. “There should be an option to do it more affordably.”
Funding sources flip
The low tuition UW-Madison students once enjoyed was the result of high levels of state support; while those students paid some of the cost of their education through tuition, it was taxpayers who mostly footed the bill for public universities, experts say.
In 1980, about 45 percent of the UW System’s revenue came from taxpayers, with tuition accounting for 12.5 percent.
But when Wisconsin and other states sought to balance their budgets, lawmakers often looked to cut higher education expecting tuition to make up the gap.
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State funding now accounts for 19 percent of the UW System’s revenue, while tuition makes up 22 percent. The share of the System’s budget that comes from grants and gifts has also grown, from 16.8 percent in 1980 to 27.3 percent this year.
“The funding sources have essentially flipped,” Keller said. “It has put a greater burden on students and families to find funding for their education.”
Moreover, in Wisconsin, tuition revenue has grown even faster than state support has shrunk. Adjusted for inflation, state funding for the UW System fell by 15.1 percent from 1980 to 2015, while tuition revenue increased by nearly 250 percent.
Darrell Bazzell, UW-Madison’s vice chancellor for finance and administration, said the university has had to pay more for employee health care, debt service and other routine costs over that time period. UW needed state support to grow with those expenses, Bazzell said, and since that hasn’t happened tuition has increased to make up the difference.
“In general, a tuition increase is to fill budget holes, or they meet other defined needs that are expressed in the budget process,” he said.
While some have criticized universities for engaging in an “amenities race” to attract students with luxurious dorms and expensive facilities, Bazzell said UW-Madison has not used tuition dollars for those purposes.
The university has added amenities in recent years, such as renovations to Union South that added a rock climbing wall and bowling alley to the building, but Bazzell pointed out the fee increase that helped pay for the building was approved by students.
Aid not keeping up
For a long time, Radomski said, UW’s ample state funding allowed it to operate as a “low-tuition, low-aid” university — not offering much aid to students but staying accessible to less-wealthy families because the price was so low.
The years of tuition increases have not been matched by a growing financial aid budget, Radomski says.
UW-Madison could meet the financial aid needs of all in-state students through grants, scholarships and subsidized loans in the early 1990s, said Susan Fischer, who recently retired as director of the university’s Office of Student Financial Aid.
In the 2013-’14 school year, when 9,154 in-state students required an average of $15,000 in need-based aid, those sources could only cover about three-quarters of their need. Students were left to take out private or unsubsidized loans to handle the rest of their costs.
Still, Bazzell said he believes the university is affordable for low- and middle-income students and families.
He pointed to several UW-Madison efforts to keep the school accessible, such as donors’ recent $50 million matching pledge dedicated to scholarships and the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates, which increased overall tuition to fund need-based aid.
More than 7,000 students received aid through the initiative in the 2013-’14 school year.
“At the same time, given the gap we have in meeting unmet need, there’s still a challenge out there,” Bazzell said.
Concern about access to UW-Madison
Radomski said UW-Madison hasn’t done enough to track whether those efforts to attract and support low-income and first-generation students are working.
The university doesn’t collect data on the family income of its students, a spokeswoman said, so it’s hard to know exactly what percentage of Badgers come from low- or middle-income backgrounds.
But only 15 percent of UW-Madison undergraduates received federal Pell grants in the 2013-14 school year, according to the federal Department of Education — the lowest share of Pell recipients at any public Big Ten Conference institution.
Though there is no income cutoff for Pell recipients, more than 95 percent of the grants go to students whose families earn less than $50,000 per year, according to the scholarship search service Fastweb.
And the number of first-generation students entering UW-Madison as freshmen has declined by 18 percent since 2006, even as its freshman class has grown by 11 percent, according to the university.
First-generation students who are admitted to UW-Madison are also choosing to enroll at lower rates than they did a decade ago.
Meanwhile, Radomski said, the university has looked to draw those from the wealthier end of the economic spectrum — particularly out-of-state and international students — to maximize tuition revenue amid declining state support.
The share of UW-Madison undergraduates who come from outside Wisconsin and Minnesota has grown from 21.6 percent in 2005 to 26.7 percent in 2014.
“We’re in a very precarious position right now,” Radomski said.
Bazzell countered that the university has worked to reduce the gap in unmet need, which he said has shrunk over the past several years as a result of the state-imposed tuition freeze and the push for donations to fund need-based scholarships.
“As long as those more recent trends continue, then we are going to be in a better place,” Bazzell said. “We’re very focused on that.”