Wisconsin Democrats propose bills to boost funding, access for higher education

By Kayla Huynh

Democratic legislators are introducing a package of bills that would secure additional funding for the University of Wisconsin System and the state’s technical colleges, as well as make college more affordable through tuition freezes and need-based financial aid grants.

In a press conference Wednesday morning, those who voiced support for the slate of seven bills included Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, Rep. Kristina Shelton, D-Green Bay, Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, and Sen. Jeff Smith, D-Brunswick. Several educators also spoke on behalf of the UW System, urging legislators to back the bills. 

All of them emphasized the need to invest in the state’s postsecondary institutions. Shankland said the bills would ultimately help support Wisconsin’s workforce and further its economic development, while also ensuring college is financially feasible for all. The package calls for funding increases, tuition remissions, added financial aid and a program offering free tuition to in-state UW System students from low- to moderate-income households.  

“As a whole, this legislative package will make higher education more affordable and more accessible to students in every community in our state by ensuring that our public higher education institutions — both technical colleges and universities — receive the support they need and deserve,” Shankland said. 

In an effort to encourage more Wisconsin residents to attend college, one bill would mimic the UW-Madison Bucky’s Tuition Promise, bringing it to all UW System institutions. Similar to its flagship university, the System initiative would provide free tuition to students from Wisconsin with household incomes of less than $60,000 a year.   

At UW-Madison, the number of freshmen using Bucky’s Tuition Promise has grown in popularity. Nearly 800 of this year’s 3,859 in-state freshmen are part of the program — a record high for the university, according to recently released enrollment data for the current semester. 

“It's imperative that we give every student a fair shot by passing the Wisconsin Tuition Promise,” said Jon Shelton, a professor at UW-Green Bay. “Students at UW-Madison get it. Why shouldn't the students who worked so hard in Green Bay and Stevens Point — and 10 other campuses in the System — get it, too?” 

Another bill would freeze tuition across the UW System by increasing funding at its 26 campuses. Under the proposed legislation, the System’s general program operations would receive $16.8 million more in 2021 and an additional $33.6 million the following year. State technical colleges and district boards would also receive $50 million. 

Shankland added that the increased funding would be taken from Wisconsin’s general purpose revenue, which comes from billions of dollars in state income and sales taxes. 

“I think that speaks to the strength of our fiscal state,” she said, citing Wisconsin’s allocation for higher education as “near the bottom” compared to other states in the nation. 

“This would put Wisconsin back to where the other states are,” she said. “We would finally be reinvesting at the level that we should.”

The package should garner bipartisan support, Shankland said, considering UW System President Tommy Thompson — the former Republican governor — and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers have both championed tuition promise initiatives. 

 “That to me says we have a great idea and we need to act on it,” she said. 

Part of the proposed package would also provide more funding for need-based financial aid grants, which are offered to undergraduate Wisconsin residents attending UW System schools or technical colleges. The legislation could assist a significant portion of low-income students who are historically underrepresented in higher education. 

The new UW-Madison freshman class, for example, has the most people in the school’s history taking advantage of federal Pell grants. Nearly 16% of UW-Madison freshmen from low-income backgrounds are receiving this type of financial aid. 

An additional bill seeks to remit academic fees for UW undergraduates studying education during semesters in which they’re student teaching.  

Nerissa Nelson, a librarian and professor at UW-Stevens Point said this will usher in more future educators into the state. Past budget slashes, she said, have led to short staffing and lowered the number of services available to students. 

“In 2017 and 2018, the financial situation at UW-Stevens Point was so bad that our campus almost eliminated 13 critical academic majors,” she recalled. “Luckily the elimination of those majors was reversed, but the cost was a reduction of our faculty and staff, and we are still feeling the effects of those cuts today.”  

Referencing that the average student debt in Wisconsin is $30,000, Shankland added that many students have been forced to defer their educational opportunities in order to save. However, for every dollar spent on the UW System, the state receives a $23 return on investment — a number she hopes will continue to grow through the new package of bills. 

Shelton spoke to the potential effect, sharing his experiences with teaching throughout the System’s financial hardships. 

“As an educator, I can tell you that our working conditions are our students' learning conditions,” he said. “I want my students to be able to leave college with less debt.” 

Shelton added that the next challenge will be earning widespread support as the bill heads to a committee for further review. If the Legislature votes in favor, the governor will then decide whether to sign or veto the bills. 

“We’ve got this terrific package of bills today, and all we have to do now is get them to the floor,” Shelton said. “It’s just common sense, and I look forward to the day when no student’s family hardship keeps them from fully participating in the Wisconsin Idea. “