Tuition Cuts for UW System Not as Great as They Sound

By Samantha Stein, The Pointer

Governor Scott Walker has proposed a tuition cut for the UW System in the next budget, but it comes with strings attached.

Walker has appeared to switch from the trend of continuous cutting of state funds to adding support to the System.
A tuition cut sounds great to students, but for the sake of the functionality of the System as a whole, lowering tuition leaves a gap which needs to be filled. The Walker administration is proposing filling the gap with performance-based funding. Therefore the amount of money distributed to each university would depend on performance.
This practice is already in place in thirty states across the country and at technical colleges in Wisconsin, where performance is measured by nine metrics.
Those metrics include the number of degrees awarded in high-demand fields, how many students find jobs in the state, and how many of those students are from “special populations or demographics that are unique to the district” or simply: minorities.
The idea has met strong criticism from educators and administrators.
Nicholas Hillman, a UW-Madison education professor, has done research on the effectiveness of the model and has said that there is not much activity when you “start to scratch the surface.”
Little to no improvement has been found in graduation rates or number of degrees earned in states with performance-based funding in place.
Alayna Freis, junior psychology major, said the practice could push students to attend private schools over the public UW System.
Freis also said if the schools are to be evaluated on performance of students and rates of completion, the students should be given the chance to evaluate the programs they participate in.
“If the program we are a part of isn’t a good one, it wouldn’t matter if we finished it on time,” she said.
Supporters of performance-based funding in Wisconsin say that its implementation at the technical colleges has been working well, and funding has increased since it was put into place.
At the same time, when opponents of the idea cite no measurable changes in the metrics of performance at the technical colleges in Wisconsin, the same supporters claim the system has not been in effect long enough for accurate conclusions to be drawn on the effectiveness.
On Jan. 24, a news release highlighting the impact of budget cuts to the UW System, and to UWSP specifically, was held in the Dreyfus University Center.
State Rep. Katrina Shankland joined students and members of the Stevens Point Academic Representational Council, along with the president of the Student Government Association, John Peralta, “to sign a pledge that calls on Gov. Walker to fund the tuition freeze of the past four years, as well as any future tuition cut, and increase state funding for higher education,” as the news release stated.
Among faculty members that attended were Kym Buchanan, Chair of the Education Department, and Andy Felt, Chair of the Mathematical Sciences Department and President of SPARC.
Before signing the pledge, Shankland said that $795 million has been lost from state aid in the last three budgets.
“Those translate to loss of positions, into higher time to degree, and more and more bottlenecks on campus’ across the state,” said Shankland. “We need to be careful to not fall for the tricks. I think tuition cuts are a trick if it’s not fully funded.”
Kym Buchanan said that “higher education is a public good…that benefits more than just the student,” and that it needs to stop being treated like an individual consumer quantity.
The theme of the meeting was that investing in students is the best way to support jobs and our economy.
Others on the UWSP campus have opposed the idea of tuition cuts and performance-based funding as well.
Tiffany Firkus, a former employee of the Financial Aid and Enrollment office and current employee of the IT Department at UWSP, has mixed feelings about a tuition cut.
“My fear is that cutting tuition rates would alter the quality of education. Less revenue would result in lower wages for both faculty and staff and less resources for students,” said Firkus. “Unless, of course, Scott Walker would decide to offset that with funding directly to the institutions to cover that reduction,” she said.
Walker said in response to criticism of the proposal, that the “overall UW System budget this year is the highest it has ever been.” This is true, but is a veiled statement, as the entire budget includes state funding, donations, a rise in student fees, rises in meal plan prices and housing plan prices and money from reserves.
UW Madison has used $15.1 million from its reserve this year to make up for lost funding across the board.
Another reason the UW System budget as a whole is so high is because Walker has “moved the pension money for all UW System employees over to the UW budget,” said State Rep. Shankland.
That means that the retirement money set aside for employee pensions is being counted as funding to be used to pay other employees.
Andy Felt said when he attended UW Madison in the 1980’s, the state funded about 50 percent of the overall budget; Now, it is only about 13 percent. “That was when the people of the state were saying ‘your education is important to us,’” said Felt.
When it comes to the technical colleges that are already facing evaluation by the state for funding purposes, there is no defined cutoff for what constitutes unacceptable performance.
There is also no appeal process for technical colleges. The metrics previously mentioned that are used to evaluate the schools are difficult to measure accurately and are not always in control of the administration either.
How many graduates get jobs in the state of Wisconsin is not dependent on the college they attend, but funding is partially based on those statistics.
Robert Abrahamian, Environmental and Sustainability Affairs Director of SGA, said at the press conference on Jan. 24 that “When you have so many students coming from out-of-state because universities prioritize them because they get more tuition dollars from them, they are more likely to leave anyway.”
Evaluation metrics for the UW System would need to be tailored specifically, and supporters of performance-based funding see it as motivation for schools to track success rates and ensure a quality education for their students.
Baihly Birdseye, junior health promotion and wellness major, said it sounds like a good idea “to hold the school accountable if the performance metrics were appropriate.”
“It would make professors more interested in students,” Birdseye said.
At the very least, agreeing on performance measures will allow lawmakers and school officials to effectively communicate with each other, hopefully improving trust between the legislators and universities, allowing students to get the biggest bang for their buck.
Tuition cuts are music to students’ ears, but if that money is not replaced by the state, it may hurt more than help.
Samantha Stein
News Editor