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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

UW Students Will Feel the Squeeze

Tuition hike plus frozen financial aid will hit this fall

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Undergraduate students at University of Wisconsin System four-year institutions would have to pay an additional 5.5% for tuition this fall, according to the proposed budget released by UW System President Kevin P. Reilly on Monday.

The proposed annual tuition for UW-Milwaukee undergrads is $7,699, $400 higher than last year.

That 5.5% jump is consistent with tuition increases for each of the past five years. It's also the maximum amount that tuition can be raised, according to provisions in the recently passed state budget.

What's new, however, is that the tuition hike comes at the same time the state Legislature has slashed state support for the UW System by $250 million—or almost 9%—over the next two years.

Even worse, the Republican-led state Legislature has frozen the amount of state funds for the Wisconsin Higher Education Grant (WHEG), the state-supported financial aid fund for the most financially stressed students. About one-fifth of all resident undergraduate students received WHEG assistance last year; the average grant was $2,161.

Wisconsin Council on Children and Families (WCCF) Research Director Jon Peacock said the Legislature's shrinking support for the state's public universities would come at a high price for state students.

“In the years when [the Legislature has] cut the UW System funding and forced tuition up they've acknowledged that it would create a problem for many students and families and they'd increased financial aid to offset that, at least for the most disadvantaged families,” Peacock said. “This time they didn't at all. There's zero increase in financial aid. It's going to be an extremely difficult situation for many low-income and middle-class families who are struggling during the recession as it is.”

Although the state Legislature capped tuition increases at 5.5% for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 academic years, it hasn't capped increases for housing, meals and other fees—or for out-of-state tuition.

There is a real fear that these cuts and tuition increases will slowly transform the system so that attending UW System universities will be based less on intelligence and achievement and more on how much money someone has in their family.

Trying to Manage Significant Cuts

The undergraduate tuition increase—if approved by the UW Board of Regents—would raise an additional $37.5 million in revenue, but that's less than one-third of the Legislature's $125 million in cuts to the UW System this year.

So how can the UW System make up for the shortfall?

One pot of funds will come from UW System employees themselves, since they were included in Gov. Scott Walker's controversial collective bargaining bill.

WCCF's Peacock said the system's lowest-paid employees would be hit the hardest.

“It has a very regressive impact on the system,” Peacock said.

The UW System's administrative budget will have to absorb a 25% hit as well.

UW System spokesman David Giroux said those savings to the system still won't offset the $125 million hole this fall.

“We're still managing very significant amounts of cuts,” Giroux said.

He said students would feel the funding shortage next fall.

“We know that campuses are going to work very hard to absorb this in ways that will protect our core educational services and student-related services,” Giroux said on Monday. “But there's no guarantee that they won't notice a difference. In fact, it's very likely that they will. These are significant cuts and we're going to work very hard to manage them in the best possible way.”

In addition to the funding cut, tuition cap and flat-lined financial aid, the state budget offered some budgeting flexibility to all UW schools.

Giroux said that funding will be distributed to the schools as a block grant for general operations, which allows the individual school to spend the money as it sees fit, instead of earmarking funds for specific needs.

The Legislature also ended the recent practice of allowing some children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition. Giroux said that fewer than 100 such students took advantage of in-state tuition, most of them concentrated at UW-Milwaukee.

The Legislature mandated that a special task force look into the UW System's tuition increases, among other issues, and file a report by Jan. 1, 2012.

The Legislature failed to enact Walker and outgoing UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin's controversial plan to grant that campus unprecedented autonomy.