The Republican-controlled budget-writing committee declined to extend a tuition freeze at University of Wisconsin System schools for the next two academic years, setting the stage for students to potentially pay more for their education as soon as this fall.
The move would send price-setting authority back to the UW Board of Regents, which appointees of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers took control of this month, and allow the board to consider raising in-state undergraduate tuition for the first time since 2013.
While the Republican proposal doesn’t place any limits on how much tuition could increase, GOP lawmakers reminded Regents that college needs to remain affordable.
“If UW decides to jack up tuition in a tone-deaf manner, this body will take action,” Sen. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, warned.
The proposal still requires sign-off from the Assembly, Senate and Evers. Neither the System nor Evers requested the freeze be lifted in their budget proposals, though UW leaders have said for several years that the freeze threatens educational quality and financial stability.
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The Joint Finance Committee, in an 11-4 party-line vote Thursday, also approved a roughly $8.25 million increase to the System’s total budget over the next two fiscal years — a fraction of the System’s $96 million request and about 4% of Evers’ $190 million proposal.
The committee also approved a $9 million increase for the Wisconsin Technical College System, which had asked for $24 million.
After several decades of rising tuition rates, the GOP-controlled Legislature and then-Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2013 froze UW tuition, an action that quickly became a campaign talking point. The strategy has also saved students money, with research showing UW graduates shouldering declining debt loads.
But a recent report by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum, which was commissioned by a group lobbying to lift the freeze on behalf of UW-Madison, found that the state’s tuition freeze has squeezed its public universities more than in states with similar caps. That’s because the GOP has declined to offset what campuses lost in inflationary increases with more state money, an approach favored by Evers and Democrats.
“We can fund the freeze,” said Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee. “We have the resources to do it, but not the political will to do it. (It’s) another missed opportunity.”
A spokesperson for Evers did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.
During the eight-year freeze, some universities turned to other revenue sources. UW-Madison, for example, enrolled more out-of-state students. Other campuses with far fewer resources have cut programs, laid off employees and increased instructors’ teaching loads.
Undergraduate resident tuition at UW-Madison costs about $10,800. The rate at most other UW campuses is a couple thousand dollars cheaper.
Republicans on Thursday argued that the freeze cannot continue in perpetuity and said UW has been more transparent about its finances in recent years. They suggested students take on a second job to help pay bills.
“There’s no reason that my father, the garbageman, has to subsidize my accounting degree, right?” Kooyenga said, while also acknowledging that their plan will be “tough to explain politically.”
UW leaders praised the committee’s decision declining to extend the freeze.
Regent president Drew Petersen described it as a “positive development in the relationship between the UW System and the legislature,” and interim System President Tommy Thompson said the budget offers schools more flexibility.
“We appreciate the end of the tuition freeze, allowing UW institutions to manage tuition increases within reasonable limits,” UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said in a statement.
The Republican plan directs $5 million toward incentivizing nurses to teach in public and private institutions. Hundreds of qualified students are turned away from nursing schools each year because there aren’t enough nurse educators to train them.
The GOP also funds several UW projects that campuses have requested for several years but requires them to return to the committee and ask for the money. These projects include $2 million to hire more agricultural agents and $5 million for the Freshwater Collaborative, a System-wide research hub focusing on water topics.
“We like the direction that they’re going on of a lot of these initiatives,” Kooyenga said. “But we also want to flesh out more details on how we could take that to the next level and make sure that the University of Wisconsin is not a self-licking ice cream cone but that it’s a place that’s actually collaborating with the private sector, K-12 and other parts of our economy.”