My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here you go:
The University of Wisconsin Board of Regents took action last week to jack up tuition by $6,000 over the next two years, and left the door open to even more increases after that. Don’t worry, though — the increase will not affect Wisconsinites … yet.
In Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal, he offered to grant the UW system much more autonomy in exchange for a $300 million cut in state funding. That proposal is already meeting an icy reception in the Legislature with members opposing both the size of the cut and the plan for more autonomy.
In reaction to the prospect of a possible reduction in state funding by some yet-to-be-determined amount, the leaders of UW have two choices: They could either find a way to reduce costs, or they could increase revenue. Naturally, they chose to increase revenue.
UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank proposed increasing revenue in one of the few places she can. Given that the Legislature wisely imposed a freeze on in-state tuition, she proposed a 35 percent increase on tuition for out-of-state students over four years. Her proposal was for a full $10,000 increase that would have made out-of-state tuition $35,523 per year.
With lightning speed and no meaningful debate, the UW regents approved the first half of Blank’s proposal in a voice vote. Tuition for outof- state students at UW-Madison will increase by $6,000 per year by 2016 — far more than the actual cost of education. The immediate and instinctive reaction by UW’s leadership is concerning on a number of levels.
Philosophically, the automatic turn to a tuition increase instead of looking for efficiencies and cost reductions is troubling. For decades, the cost of higher education has increased much faster than the rate of inflation. It is the climbing cost of higher education that is driving rampant student debt and making it more difficult for the middle class to afford a college education. But while the price of higher education in Wisconsin has increased faster than people’s ability to pay, the quality of that education has not measurably improved at the same pace. It just costs more for the same product.
While it makes sense for some costs, like new technology, to increase faster than inflation, it is difficult to explain why the cost of a professor imparting knowledge to a class full of students has increased so quickly. When one digs deeper into the enormous building projects and bloated administrative staff, the reasons for the cost increases become much clearer.
When faced with a slight reduction in revenue (less than 5 percent with Walker’s full cut), UW was unable to even consider any significant cuts to keep tuition affordable. Since the tuition increase, Blank has announced a reduction of 400 jobs, but it has since been learned that the vast majority of those jobs are already vacant and unnecessary. It was window dressing designed to encourage students, staff and alumni to activism rather than a serious executive looking to seriously manage a revenue shortfall.
The UW regents are raising tuition on out-of-state students for obvious reasons. They can; and they think, probably correctly, that Wisconsinites will not be too upset at it because it does not impact tuition for them. But the increasing imbalance between in-state and out-of-state tuition adds political pressure to eventually raise in-state tuition too. After all, they will argue, is it fair to make out-of-state kids subsidize the education of Wisconsin’s kids?
The tuition increase also affirms what many legislators have been saying in regards to UW: They cannot be trusted with more autonomy and they cannot be allowed unfettered power over tuition. They have not demonstrated the slightest willingness, much less an ability, to control costs.
UW-Madison’s chancellor and the regents have gotten their tuition increase and a slight reprieve from having to make difficult decisions, but in doing so they have demonstrated why they must be actively managed by the state’s elected leaders. (Owen Robinson is a blogger at bootsandsabers.com and a resident of West Bend.)