UW students stuck with cost that taxpayers used to cover

March 8, 2015
The Wisconsin State Journal

Lost in discussions of Gov. Scott Walker’s $300 million budget cut for the University of Wisconsin System is how the sharing of the costs of instruction will be shifted from taxpayers to students and their parents in tuition increases.

Back in the late 1950s, an agreement was reached setting UW tuition at 20 percent of the cost of instruction for resident undergraduate students. By the mid-1990s that percentage had risen to about 35 percent. It continued to climb, reaching 52 percent in 2004-05 and then 71 percent in 2013-14.

If Gov. Scott Walker’s budget cut is implemented, the student share will rise to almost 80 percent in 2015-16. Under the influence of Wisconsin’s recent governors, the state’s historic commitment to affordable undergraduate education in the System’s 13 four-year universities and 13 two-year centers has been steadily whittled away.

The looming 10 percent reduction in the cost of instruction will seriously jeopardize the ability of the System to continue providing quality undergraduate education.

The impact of this shift in financing shows up most clearly in the sharing of the costs of instruction. With the rapid increase in the student share of the cost of instruction, tuition rose from $4,415 to $7,232. This is a 64 percent increase. Meanwhile, the taxpayer share fell from $4,075 to $2,954, a decline of 28 percent.

In looking back, it is the dramatic increase in tuition that has received so much attention. Little has been said about the sharp reductions in taxpayer support as an important reason for the large tuition increases.

The cost of instruction, which is financed by taxpayers and student tuition, rose by about 20 percent from 2004-05 to 2013-14, from $8,490 to $10,186. But once price level increases are taken into account, the inflation-adjusted cost of instruction remained essentially unchanged.

What happened? Gubernatorial and legislative efforts succeeded in reducing taxpayer expenditures on the System. The Board of Regents and the System succeeded in raising tuition enough to maintain the quality of undergraduate instruction, as indicated by the unchanged, constant dollar cost of instruction.

The governor’s proposed $150 million budget cut for 2015-16 amounts to a roughly $1,000 reduction in the resources available to support the cost of instruction. This figure is based on the roughly 150,000 Wisconsin resident students enrolled in System institutions.

If the budget cut is enacted, the cost of instruction will be forced down from $10,186 to $9,186. With the governor’s freeze on tuition, there will be no way to offset this decline in instructional cost.

As a consequence, the share of the cost of instruction paid by students will rise from its 71 percent share in 2013-14 (data for 2014-15 are not yet available) to almost 80 percent in 2015-16. The taxpayer share will have dropped to an all-time low of about 20 percent.

This means the 20 percent student/80 percent taxpayer sharing of the instructional cost in the 1950s and 1960s will be reversed, with an almost 80 percent student/20 percent taxpayer sharing of the costs in 2015-16.

The prospect of this massive budget cut being enacted has escalated uncertainty among students, faculty and staff.

Campuses are already deciding for the coming academic year which courses will be taught and who will teach them. Students will soon have to decide which courses they need to meet their graduation requirements.

If courses must be cancelled later this spring to reduce the budget in 2015-16, the plans of many students to graduate in four years will be jeopardized.

Additional problems will arise because many faculty members and academic staff work under contracts that cannot be terminated on short notice. More important for the reputation of the System, and particularly UW-Madison, a number of outstanding faculty and staff will very likely begin receiving generous salary offers from other research universities and be poised to leave for greener pastures.

Two final points. Too often the proponents of new policy proposals, and this seems to be the case with Gov. Walker, fail to recognize or even acknowledge the unintended consequences of their proposals. Rushing through major policy changes without adequate public discussion is not a recipe for promoting change that serves the public interest.

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