I have long been a supporter of Scott Walker, and I am glad that he is our Governor. I also certainly do not consider myself a foe of the University of Wisconsin system, as I have connections to it as both a graduate and a staff member.** Still, I find myself taking issue with a UW-related proposal Governor Walker made recently. In his State of the State address, he said that, after freezing in-state undergraduate tuition at UW-System schools for the last few years, he now would like to actually cut it. While this may sound appealing to a lot of people, my first reaction is that this is not really a desirable or wise idea.
In general, I think that the institutions of the UW-System are a pretty good value for students now. However, I would be much more favorably disposed toward the tuition-cut notion if the Governor’s intention was to reduce expenditures at UW Schools so that the actual cost of providing an education at these colleges and universities would go down, and then to pass the reductions along to students. Instead, though, it seems that Walker was suggesting sending more money from the state budget to the UW to offset reduced revenue from tuition.
Now, I am all for attempts to keep costs down for students at our state institutions of higher learning. I’ve been concerned by recent or upcoming moves to increase or expand the use of existing fees (such as for applications, placement testing, graduation, etc.) or to add new ones (for first-time enrollment, for example), as these actions do not always seem motivated by a genuine need to cover rising costs of providing the associated services. They sometimes appear to reflect a wish to generate more revenue to accommodate desired increases in spending, and I question whether this is a fair approach, especially for those who claim to be very concerned about student needs and access to higher education.
I also think that the System, which is always requesting more money from the state, could well do without some of what it seeks. Some planned renovations or new constructions seem to be either elective or more elaborate than necessary. Also, for an entity supposedly stretched financially thin by budget reductions and tuition freezes, some priorities and choices regarding the allocation of funds might perhaps be misguided. Things like adding new positions, especially in narrowly tailored administrative roles; seeking raises for staff and fretting that, for example, UW-Madison might lose a particular professor they seek if they aren’t able to pay her as much as some wealthy private school can; and shopping for lots of the latest fancy and expensive new technological gadgets and software to replace things that are still working might not be particularly appropriate for a state University system that is supposed to be on a budgetary diet. Many of these topics merit discussion in their own right, and more fiscal discipline regarding these and other matters could help to bring down costs for students in the future.
Still, overall, and compared to costs of other choices, UW tuition does not seem unreasonable, and students have the options to apply for financial aid, scholarships, etc. to assist them in paying for college. Taxpayer money already provides some degree of subsidy toward education at Wisconsin’s public state University system and technical colleges, but I do not believe that we should go down the path of adding higher education to the ever-growing list of things to which everyone feels “entitled.” (Sorry, Senator Sanders.) One would think that conservatives, like the Governor, would especially want to avoid such a development. Those wishing to attend our state schools should be ultimately responsible for the cost of their education. If our public institutions of higher learning provide a valuable product to their customers, something of which they are surely capable, and avoid overcharging, students should find their expenses to be worthwhile, and we shouldn’t feel a need to shift more of the burden to the taxpayers of Wisconsin.
I’m sure Governor Walker meant well and wanted to help Wisconsin college students when he proposed a cut in UW-System tuition. It would be preferable, though, if he and the legislature stuck with a tuition freeze instead and looked for ways to encourage the most responsible use possible of resources at our state Universities. That could lead to benefits for students and taxpayers, as well as for a reformed and better-appreciated system of higher education in Wisconsin.
**The opinions expressed here are mine alone, speaking as an individual Wisconsin resident and taxpayer. No implications about the viewpoints of any other person or of any institution are intended.