Legislators, business leaders sound the alarm about higher education funding in Wisconsin

State spending more on prisons than university system


Written By: Logan T. Carlson
MARSHFIELD — The issue of higher education funding has been a hot topic both in Madison and throughout the state during the past year.
After news that the University of Wisconsin System had more than $1 billion in reserves last summer, legislators quickly worked on a bipartisan proposal to freeze tuition at all campuses throughout the state.
The vast majority of those reserves already were earmarked for special projects or were grant money that could only be spent on specific programs.
The move was hailed by student leaders around Wisconsin, as tuition rates had increased steadily at the statutory limited 5.5 percent for years prior to the freeze. But it did little to address the structural reasons why tuition has been increasing rapidly in recent years, namely the dwindling state support for the UW System.
“We saw UW System cut by $202 million (in the biennium budget),” said Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, during a higher education forum held at UW-Marshfield/Wood County on Tuesday. “I think that’s a historic disinvestment in our schools.”
State spending on the Department of Corrections eclipsed the UW System in 2011.
“What we’re talking about is reprioritization in the state of Wisconsin. I think the most telling thing was four years ago, for the first time, we funded (Corrections) at a higher level than higher education, and that trend is continuing,” said Chris Meyer, mayor of Marshfield and information systems manager at UW-M/WC. “That’s an alarming trend that nobody seems to talk about.”
About 60 people attended the forum, ranging in background from business, health care and education professionals, who were interested to both hear from legislators and express their own concerns about the current state of higher education in Wisconsin.
State funds now support 29 percent of the cost of instruction, according to figures from the UW System. Ten years ago, that number was 53 percent. When state funding drops, it’s only inevitable that difference would be made up by students in the form of higher tuition bills.
This had both Shankland, and Rep. Mandy Wright, D-Wausau, wondering whether the UW System could even be considered a public institution anymore.
“It gets to the part of do we have public funding for public schools,” Wright said. “Do we truly have public schools serving the public or are we relying so much on local taxpayers or local businesses to fund schools?”
Thirty years ago, a full year’s tuition, not including segregated fees, at UW-Madison cost $1,064. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $2,524 in today’s money, or $6,749 less than what it currently costs to attend UW-Madison. State support per full-time equivalent student is at its lowest point in the past 10 years, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
The dramatic shift of the cost of higher education to students has seen loan debt skyrocket to more than $1.2 trillion, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Student loan debt is currently the second largest form of consumer debt in the United States, only behind home mortgages.
A lot of people who went to school in the 1960s will say they worked a minimum wage job and were able to pay off their tuition, Shankland said.
“That’s because you could. Now that will take 10 years to do that,” she said. “When we increase the tuition on our students and then ask, ‘Why aren’t they buying cars? Why aren’t they buying houses? Why aren’t they investing in the economy?’; it’s because $1,000 a month are going to student loan debt, that’s why.”
All of this has business leaders in Marshfield concerned about their ability to attract talented individuals and help promote a thriving economy.
“Our partnership with the college here in town has been tremendous. We couldn’t survive in this area without our relationships with the university,” said Layton Anderson, vice president for hospital operations at Ministry Saint Joseph’s Hospital. “It’s not strictly about health care, but if we don’t create those other jobs in the area, and continue to support (education) funding, we’re not going to be here, either.”
Anderson said he has two children currently in college and was somewhat surprised about the current state of tuition and student loan debt.
“The change from when I went to school has been pretty dramatic, and I’m not that old. What I see with my kids that cost has escalated to a point where you have to be extremely wealthy to send your kids to college, or (you are less fortunate and) are able to get grants and that funding,” Anderson said. “The middle class there is that huge gap. Both of my kids will graduate with $20,000 to $25,000 of debt, even though I was able to help.
“That scared me, because from (the financial aid counselors) estimation, that was seen as acceptable,” he said. “There is no way our kids can graduate from college and expect to have the lifestyle we were able to have. We need to tackle that together and find ways to address that in our community.”
Sen. Terry Moulton, R-Chippewa Falls, said he doesn’t think there is going to be urgency in the Legislature next year to address the issue.
“I don’t think we’re going to be huge spending increases in higher (education),” he said. “I don’t think there’s going to be large sentiment in the Legislature to provide increases.”