As Other States Invest in Higher Ed, Wisconsin Lags Behind

By State Senator Julie Lassa

At the height of the Great Recession in 2009, many states were forced to cut funding for higher education as they struggled to cope with massive revenue shortfalls in the wake of a global economic meltdown.  As the economy began to recover, however, most states began reinvesting in their public colleges and universities.  It was a smart move.  Strong colleges and universities create the innovations that lead to new industries, and educate the skilled workforce businesses need to prosper and grow.  An investment in higher education is an investment in a better economic future.

Unfortunately, Wisconsin went in the other direction.  In fact, according to the annual Grapevine Study issued by Illinois State University, Wisconsin is one of only nine states to cut funding for higher education in the 2015-16 budget year.  What’s more, only one state – Arizona – cut higher education funding by a greater percentage than Wisconsin.  At a time when the vast majority of states are strengthening their colleges and universities, Governor Walker and legislative Republicans handed our University of Wisconsin System another $250 million reduction even beyond the cuts they made in their previous budgets.

These cuts are doing real long term damage to our universities.  Just in my own Senate district, the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point lost its principle source of funding for its Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology.  Budget cuts have led to the loss of research faculty who were doing cutting edge research on polymers, nanotechnology, and helping to revitalize our paper industry by turning their industrial waste into profitable, high-value chemicals.  These projects generated valuable patents and attracted millions in research contracts to UWSP, funding which is also now in jeopardy. 

Wisconsin’s education cuts have not just hurt our economy; they are likely to make a university education less affordable and less valuable for students.  As faculty numbers decline, students will end up having to wait to get into classes they need to graduate, which will increase the time and expense of getting a degree.  Students will have fewer opportunities to work with leading researchers on cutting-edge projects.  The University of Wisconsin’s sterling reputation as one of the best state university systems in the world will become tarnished, and having a degree from a UW campus on your resume will become less valuable.

Democrats have advocated a return to smarter public policies and getting back hundreds of millions of our federal tax dollars that this Governor has unwisely turned away.  This would enable Wisconsin to make the same financially smart investment in increasing higher education funding that 41 other states are doing.  For example, using federal funds to strengthen BadgerCare would save Wisconsin over $300 million, which is more than enough money to restore the Governor’s most recent cut to our universities. 

Our Badger Blueprint also contains proposals like our Higher Ed, Lower Debt plan to make higher education more affordable and ease the crushing load of student debt.  These proposals can make a positive difference; investing in quality, affordable higher education not only helps our kids and grandkids, it strengthens our businesses and leads to a stronger, healthier state economy.  Rather than being in the minority of states still cutting education, Wisconsin should become a leader once again.

You can learn more about our proposals to strengthen education and Wisconsin's economy by visiting legis.wisconsin.gov/senate/democrats/take-action/wisconsin-badger-blueprint.