Op Ed

Legislature Must Repair Damage to UW System

Funding cut 12% under Walker. UW System falling behind other states' universities.

By - Oct 17th, 2019 02:54 pm
UWM Union. Photo by Dave Reid.

UWM Union. Photo by Dave Reid.

With a toxic brew of massive budget cuts and a tuition freeze, Governor Scott Walker and the Republican-led legislature spent eight long years laying waste to the University of Wisconsin System. But today we have a chance to undo some of the damage done, strangely enough, by embracing one aspect of Walker’s siege.

The budget cuts were enormous. During Walker’s time in office the state cut the amount of General Purpose Revenue it spent on the UW by 12%, after inflation. From 2013-2018, as other states were adding to their higher education systems after the recession, our legislature just kept on cutting. Per student spending was slashed by 8% during this time—we placed 47th among the 50 states for student spending! Only Mississippi, West Virginia, and Oklahoma did worse.

But starting in 2013, Governor Walker also froze tuition for the UW’s in-state students. Here’s where it gets interesting. This action spoke to a real and pressing crisis of American higher education. Over the past three decades the average tuition and fees at U.S. public four-year colleges has tripled, even after accounting for inflation. Wisconsin has not been immune either. At UW-Madison, for example, between 1992 and 2012 tuition increased at three times the rate of inflation. So on its own terms, the tuition freeze was progress: we need to keep the UW accessible for all Wisconsin families!

But the problem is that during all this time of the freeze, the real cost of an education was still rising. Since 2012-13, the cost of living—including the cost of educating students—has increased by over 9%. So when you say the UW can’t increase a major source of its revenue, especially in the face of oversize cuts, you’re effectively telling it that something has to go. Offer fewer classes to help students graduate. Downsize that library. Don’t staff internship opportunities, community partnerships. The tuition freeze is only cuts by another name.

I’m happy to say we now have the chance to do much better. State Representative Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point) and State Senator Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) recently proposed what they’re calling a “Reaching Higher for Higher Education” bill package. Among other great features, these bills would preserve the tuition freeze, helping to keep the UW accessible. But they would also fully fund the freeze for the most recent budget, taking into account that rising cost of living. And they would require the legislature to fund all future tuition freezes, too.

These bills would undo some of the damage from Governor Walker’s siege, in short. It would offer students a terrific education that still wouldn’t sink their lives with debt.

We can start repairing the damage to the UW and our students today. I urge you to support these bills. Call your state legislator. Sign AFT-Wisconsin’s petition by going to our website (wi.aft.org). Wisconsinites should expect better than we’ve gotten for the past decade. Let’s make a UW we can all continue to be proud of.

Kim Kohlhaas is the President of AFT-Wisconsin, a state federation of labor unions representing, among others, faculty and academic staff on every campus in the University of Wisconsin System.

Categories: Education, Op-Ed, Politics

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