Keep tuition freeze, boost funding for UW System

February 27, 2019

A popular tuition freeze at University of Wisconsin System schools should continue for two more years — assuming state leaders steer more state money to campuses.

That appears to be Gov. Tony Evers’ plan, as he prepares to unveil his first state budget request Thursday to the Legislature and public.

The Democratic governor told the Associated Press in Sunday’s State Journa l that he planned to freeze in-state, undergraduate tuition in his 2019-2021 budget proposal. UW tuition for state residents has been flat since 2013, thanks to former Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

But unlike his predecessor, Evers wants to give UW System a healthy increase of $150 million in state aid, much of it targeted to high-demand fields, allowing more students access to classes they need to graduate.

The Legislature should carefully assess Evers’ plan as details are released this week and analyzed by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. The general outline, though, looks good for higher education, students, families and our economy.

Wisconsin’s population is graying fast. Our state needs more graduates and workers to fill the jobs of the future, and to compete in the global economy. That will demand greater investment in UW System schools and technical colleges, so quality remains high and so students aren’t burdened with deeper debt.

Annual tuition and fees at UW-Madison total $10,555 for state residents (and when housing, a meal plan, books and supplies are included, the cost is $21,726). That burden is about twice as high as students faced three decades ago, when adjusted for inflation. And tuition for out-of-state students — which isn’t frozen — is $36,805 (which rises to $47,976 with housing, meals and books).

Republicans cut $250 million in state aid from the UW System in the previous state budget before modestly increasing state support by about $26 million in the current state budget. The UW System has drawn on its reserves to offset some of that reduction. But those sources are drying up. The System’s tuition balance of $550 million in 2014, for example, had fallen to $300 million as of last summer, according to the Fiscal Bureau.

A lot of that money is spoken for. It just hasn’t been spent yet. And with so many campuses and students to serve, UW System needs some cushion to guard against hard times, just as businesses do.

Evers’ $150 million increase for UW System pairs well with an extension of the tuition freeze. Besides more space for students pursuing high-demand jobs, Evers’ plan calls for 2 percent annual pay raises for UW employees, and steers $18 million more to technical colleges.

Investing in higher education while controlling the cost of tuition are strong priorities that deserve bipartisan support.