GOP bill seeks to rein in student fees at UW campuses, but 'one size fits all' approach draws concernsAn upcoming GOP bill seeks to curb student costs by limiting what their segregated fees can be used for

By Devi Shastri, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

State Rep. David Murphy of Greenville, who co-authored the bill with Sen. André Jacque of De Pere, said the approach would address affordability for students burdened by "skyrocketing UW fees."

The bill has yet to be proposed in the Legislature. Murphy's office said the bill has gathered bipartisan support since it started circulating the Legislature for sponsorship, with Reps. Samantha Kerkman, R-Salem; Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma; Timothy Ramthun, R-Campbellsport; and Shannon Zimmerman, R-River Falls; and Sens. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee; and Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville signing on.

The proposal would cap how much University of Wisconsin System students would pay to support colleges' athletic programs and change what it takes to approve putting student segregated fees toward new building projects.

Murphy used the example of UW-Madison, where athletic program revenue and donations are enough to support teams without student fees. In contrast, UW-Green Bay students pay the most for athletics in the UW System — in the 2017-'18 school year students paid $355 for athletics alone.

Three campuses had athletic fees higher than $200 that year; five charged more than $100.

"That's a lot of money for you as a student to pay so that somebody else can play basketball," Murphy told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The bill would cap the athletic fee at $225 per student or the current level, whichever is lower.

The legislation would also prevent the use of student fees for new building projects unless the majority of students at the university pass two consecutive referenda. If passed, the student fees could only be used to fund half the cost of the project.

In the current system, the majority decision of students who vote determines if everyone will bear the cost of new buildings. But turnout can vary widely.

UW-Madison's last referendum passed with 87% supporting the current project to pay into a $223 million plan to rebuild and update several recreational facilities, according toLaura Downer, chair of the Associated Students of Madison. Just over 34% of the student body turned out to vote on the issue.

In 2017, the Journal Sentinel reported students at UW-Stevens Point started paying $50 more per year for a new $40 million health and wellness facility after only 16% of the student body turned out to vote.

Ultimately, 923 students — 10% of the student body — approved the project.

The costs can add up.

UW-Madison students will see a $170 rise in segregated fees in the coming school year, the majority of which is driven by the 2014 vote. Total segregated fees at four-year UW universities range from $1,010 at UW-Whitewater to $1,597 at UW-Superior for the upcoming school year, according to budget documents.

"My feeling on this is that students should not be voting or taking on a seg fee for a building that's going to last 50 years," Murphy said. "You're making a decision at one point in time for everybody else."

But broad regulation of fees may not be so simple, those in the UW System say.

"One-size-fits-all mandates from Madison on fees and regulation can lead to unintended consequences that jeopardize the quality of education students expect, especially at regional campuses," UW Regents President Andrew Petersen told the Journal Sentinel.

"It's not as if we run institutions in a homogeneous fashion," Petersen said. "Stevens Point is focused on health and wellness and additional career counseling. UW-Madison has considerable investments in their sports recreation facilities that the students highly value and believe are long overdue for renovation."

Drew Petersen is the new president of the UW Board of Regents.

Drew Petersen is the new president of the UW Board of Regents. (Photo: Courtesy of the University of Wisconsin System)

Petersen also noted the UW Regents have prioritized keeping fees under control, adding that fees rose $36 on average across the system and the overall cost of attendance for students rose less than 1% in fiscal year 2020 — though frozen tuition plays a role in keeping overall costs down as well.

On average, according to the system's 2019-'20 budget, segregated fees rose 2.7%. Past years have seen higher increases. Between 2013 and 2017, fees at UW-Milwaukee rose by 35%. Other campuses saw smaller increases over the same period, from a 7% increase at UW-Platteville to 26% at UW-River Falls.

Student leaders also expressed concerns with the approach.

Brailey Kerber, who served as the student body president at UW-Stevens Point last school year, said Murphy's staff consulted her while developing the bill and that she didn't feel her concerns about the legislation were heard.

Keeping student fees out of athletics may work at UW-Madison, Kerber said, where the school's athletics are prominent enough to pay for themselves through donations and revenue.

But smaller athletic programs like the ones at UW-Stevens Point rely on fee funding, Kerber said. Without that money, the programs themselves would suffer, she said, and so would the campus' ability to attract students.

"Stevens Point just added women's wrestling. We're the first school in the system to have that," Kerber said. "And if our donors don't see that as valuable, then they might not be able to fund that program anymore."

Downer questioned the idea of limiting fee funding for new projects. She said the threshold to pass a fee for a new building at a school the size of UW-Madison would be an all but impossible challenge.

"At UW-Madison, that means that 22,000 students have to be mobilized to vote and they all have to say yes," Downer said. "I don't think that's a reasonable expectation for any election, no matter how excited students are about it."

What's more, the proposal could take away the decision-making power from the student body, which is the most acutely aware of what projects their campuses need, the students said.

"I question very directly how we can build those buildings if there's not segregated fees involved," Downer said. "We'd love to see more support from the university and more support from the state, but historically, that's not what we've gotten and I don't think that there's any real reason to believe that it will change going forward."

Both students said the move away from fee funding for new building projects also takes power away from student legislators at a time when they say they feel the need to step up.

"I find it condescending toward students because one of the unique things about segregated fees is that students have a direct say in where their money is going. That's not something they get to do with tuition dollars," Downer said. "It's been frustrating to watch that get more and more limited."

Raft of higher-ed bills

The fees proposal is one of a series of bills aimed at issues across the UW System under the GOP's "Open and Accessible UW" package and the Democrats' "Reaching Higher for Higher Ed" package.

Legislators say the hope is to start a broader conversation about keeping college affordable while supporting and keeping the state university system competitive.

Many of the bills face majors hurdles in passing — like the Democratic proposals to increase funding for the UW and technical college systems that rehash issues already debated in the state budget process — and several have been introduced and failed before.

The GOP package also includes a bill to make a universal course numbering system between technical colleges and UW schools to make it easier to transfer and one to clarify state definitions and regulations on university-affiliated organizations and foundations. The headlining bill is one that allows inflationary increases to tuition if the nearly decade-long tuition freeze for in-state students ends.

The Democratic package, authored by Rep. Katrina Shankland of Stevens Point and Sen. Dave Hansen of Green Bay, includes bills that would allocate millions to the UW and technical college systems and the Wisconsin Grant program and one that would waive tuition for student teachers while they're student teaching.

Shankland and Hansen also included a counter to Murphy's proposal to cap the tuition increase of in-state students based on inflation, by allocating $50 million to the UW System over the next two years to subsidize the tuition freeze.

That's about the same amount Gov. Tony Evers proposed in his budget and ultimately didn't receive.