Democrats Push Bills to Fund UW Tuition Freeze, Direct More Money to Tech Colleges

By: Briana Reilly 7/26/19 Capitol Times

Democratic lawmakers are championing legislation to allocate more money to University of Wisconsin System campuses and ensure any ongoing tuition freeze is funded with state dollars.

The effort, one of the bills' co-authors said Friday, presents a "positive alternative" to legislation pushed by a key Assembly Republican that would set up a contingency plan if Wisconsin’s freeze on in-state undergraduate tuition goes away, among other things.

The package of six Democratic-backed bills, from Rep. Katrina Shankland and Sen. Dave Hansen, began circulating for co-sponsors Thursday. They include measures to direct more than $60 million to the Wisconsin Technical College System, as well as the UW System to compensate campuses for lost revenue under the freeze and allocating $90 million more for student financial aid. 

The legislation comes after Rep. Dave Murphy received media attention this week for his planned bills to tie UW in-state tuition to the consumer price index if the freeze ends and implement cohort pricing and put limits on what student segregated fees can be used for, among other things. 

But Shankland, D-Stevens Point, drew a contrast between those bills and her own, saying Murphy's bills represent "the old way" while hers are a new approach and "a positive alternative." 

"His package really presents, I think, an outdated view of how we should be working together when it comes to investing in the UW System and it doesn’t present any real solutions to the significant problems that we have with funding at UW System as well as sustainability," she said in a press call Friday.

A Murphy spokesman didn't immediately return a request for comment.

The freeze for in-state undergrads first began under then-Gov. Scott Walker in the 2013-14 school year following outrage over the system’s cash reserves. The Legislature’s budget committee in May voted to continue the freeze for two more years, but opted not to backfill the system with $50.4 million in general purpose revenue, as Gov. Tony Evers sought in his budget request.

Republicans instead decided to set aside $45 million in funding for the UW System over the next two years for any purpose the system wants, though officials would need to submit a proposal to the Joint Finance Committee in order to get the money.

Under the Democratic bills, campuses would receive $50.4 million over the next two years to makeup for the ongoing freeze, while tech colleges would get $11 million extra over the biennium. Additionally, lawmakers wouldn't be able to implement any tuition freeze in the future unless it's offset by a corresponding increase in state aid. That provision would take effect in the 2021-22 school year.

The legislation would also increase money available for grants for UW System and tech college students, a program that's administered by the Higher Educational Aids Board. The allocations would address unmet student financial need, the difference between the cost of attending school and the resources a student and their family bring to the table.

In the 2016-17 school year, resident undergraduate students received $115.4 million in aid from HEAB's grant program, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, a sum that accounts for 11.7 percent of the total need-based aid awarded to students across four state, federal, private and institutional funding sources that academic year.

In all, $986 million was allowed to those UW students in the 2016-17 school year, while the state logged $943.4 million leftover in unmet financial need.

The bill would direct $27 million extra in each year of the biennium for HEAB's grants to UW students. Tech college student grants would also see a boost of $18 million each of the next two years.

Other bills would create a 19-member UW System Blue Ribbon Commission — which Shankland has introduced previously — and remit UW undergraduate student teachers' academic fees for the semesters they spend student teaching.

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, praised the legislation for "putting forward what real investment" in the UW System should look like.

He added the legislation differs from Murphy's package because it is "more focused on the future, on students, on opportunity, on addressing the key issues of affordability but also valuing quality."

UW System Board of Regents President Andrew Petersen in a statement in response to Murphy's bill said "reinvestment in our public universities is the UW System’s primary focus."

"Lifting the tuition freeze is one of many options, but maintaining affordability without diluting quality is why we continue to prioritize operational investments," he added.

But a UW System spokesman didn't have an immediate response to the Democratic bills specifically.

The offices of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, didn't return requests for comment on Murphy's or Shankland's bills.