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Cut UW tuition only if state funding goes up

Cut UW tuition only if state funding goes up

State of the State

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker delivers his State of the State Address in the Assembly chamber at the State Capitol in Madison on Tuesday.

Gov. Scott Walker got loud applause and big headlines this week for proposing in his annual State of the State speech the first tuition cut at University of Wisconsin System schools in more than 30 years.

The Republican governor even vowed to reimburse UW for the lost revenue.

That sounds good.

But given Gov. Walker’s $250 million reduction in state funding for UW System in the last state budget, the top priority for state leaders should be to bring back some of the state aid that UW lost.

UW System is requesting a $42.5 million increase for all of its campuses, not just UW-Madison. That’s a modest 1 percent increase in taxpayer support for the 2017-2018 school year, and a 2 percent increase in 2018-2019.

The Republican-run Legislature has sounded open to granting that amount, given the cuts to university staff and courses over the last two years. Tight university budgets led to larger class sizes, fewer advisers and lost campus jobs for students.

Spending on research at UW-Madison also declined by more than $100 million between 2012 and 2015, leading the university to fall from the top five of the National Science Foundation’s ranking of research institutions for the first time in more than four decades.

That’s bad for Wisconsin’s economy because it means our state is getting fewer federal dollars to search for scientific breakthroughs that can lead to patents, startup companies and lasting jobs.

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The governor in Tuesday’s speech didn’t say how low he wanted tuition to go. Nor did he say how much funding he would give UW System.

Without more detail, it’s hard to know if Walker’s tuition cut makes sense. Other pressing needs, such as K-12 schools, faster internet service for rural communities, and road projects are competing for state dollars. At the same time, the governor is talking about more tax cuts, which reduce state revenue and limit state spending.

The public will learn more when the governor releases his two-year budget plan next month, after which the Legislature can make changes.

In-state tuition at UW System schools has been capped since 2013, which is good. But state funding has fallen. And the cost of college remains challenging for students and families.

Tuition and fees at UW-Madison, for example, are $10,488 this year. That’s a lot of money and doesn’t count housing and food.

A 1 percent decrease in tuition would save a Wisconsin student about $104 per year and reduce university revenue by about $15 million over two years, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

That means any tuition break, while welcome, should be offset by state dollars. And state leaders should grant UW its modest funding request.

Our universities need investment to fulfill their crucial missions.

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