Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

Tuition zero

This week Scott Walker unveils a budget proposal for the 2015-17 biennium that seeks to cut $300 million from the University of Wisconsin System, or about 13% of total current state support, the biggest cut in the system’s history. Walker is simultaneously proposing to alter state law governing the UW System in such a way that certain unspecified financial efficiencies can be achieved. No one pretends that these efficiencies will be nearly enough to offset the $300 million cut. Under ordinary circumstances, the UW System would be forced to raise tuition in order to cover the gap between the amount of the cuts and what can be saved through the new organizational structure. But Walker is also proposing a two-year extension of the system-wide tuition freeze that has been in force since 2013. Something will have to give.

To hear Walker tell it, he is concerned with educational quality and affordable access to a UW education. In his newsletter of this past Friday, Walker writes, “As a parent of a son in the UW System, I understand the importance of maintaining the quality of higher education and keeping college affordable for the parents and students of our state.” It is certainly hard to argue with the proposition that a UW education should be made as high-quality and affordable as possible.

The problem, of course, is that quality and affordability both cost money, and Walker’s immediate proposal is not to dedicate more money to those goals, but instead to cut an unprecedentedly large amount of money out of the UW System budget. This is plainly the opposite of what you would do if you cared about quality and affordability; it is hard to see how anyone can take Walker seriously on this point.

Indeed, in that same newsletter, Walker reveals an almost shocking lack of concern for college affordability after 2017: “At the end of this time [i.e. 2015-17], the UW System Authority institutions will have the ability to adjust tuition based on demand to be more competitive and market-based.” This is a clear admission from Walker that the tuition freeze is untenable when paired with the massive budget cuts he is proposing, and that 2017 will bring an end to the fantasy: tuition will rise dramatically, or quality will suffer terribly, or (most likely) we will see some combination of those two outcomes. By the time the bill comes due, of course, Walker plans to be long gone from Wisconsin, and his son will be at or near the end of his time in the UW System, to boot. So much for sympathy with fellow UW parents.

The issue of affordability is the one on which UW faculty, administrators, and other supporters have been the most puzzlingly silent. Why has tuition gone up at UW campuses in recent years? Too often, it is portrayed as the result of greed on the part of the UW System and, by extension, UW faculty.* This is the impression we get when, for example, the Journal-Sentinel writes that “the Legislature would have no ability to stop the university from raising tuition as much as it wants starting in 2017.”

In reality, the UW System raises tuition not because it wants to but because the legislature leaves it no choice. Tuition increases directly track funding cuts at the state level: the money has to come from somewhere, and in recent years legislators (both Republican and Democratic) have seen fit to shift the costs from the state as a whole to individual students. This is an “every road a toll road” approach to higher ed. If transportation funding worked like this, you would end up paying a toll to drive down the street you live on: after all, I don’t live on your street, so why should my tax dollars fund its upkeep?

So, I am here to tell you: UW faculty want to see tuition go down! UW faculty would like nothing better than to see the legislature increase funding to the System and devote the entire increase to a tuition drop (we are idealistic like that). Scott Walker is a self-proclaimed fan of “big and bold” political ideas, so here is one: let’s set UW System tuition on a downward path to zero. This would make a UW education more accessible and more attractive to students, who in turn would graduate without the mountains of debt that recent state funding cuts have forced them to take on.

Implementing this vision will take bold political leadership: tuition currently makes up about 22% of the UW System budget, which is more than the 19% that comes from state funding. It will take a renewed commitment to the notion of the public sphere and our shared responsibility for one another. I won’t hold my breath waiting for Scott Walker to take those steps. But don’t be fooled: the commitment to a high-quality and affordable UW education demands changes in precisely the opposite direction from the ones Walker is proposing.


*(In the interest of disclosure: as a full-time professor at UW-Milwaukee, the second-ranked research campus in Wisconsin, I now earn less than I made four years ago in a comparable position at Wayne State University in Detroit, a third-tier public institution within the Michigan university system.)

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