$15.68 million has been cut from the UW-L budget in the last 13 years, representing the lack of overall state support within the UW system. The over half a billion dollars cut from the UW system budget in 13 years demonstrates a trend that has been occurring over the past 30 years on a national scale.
State budget decisions cause partisan conflict across the country. “It doesn’t matter, we’ve had legislators and governors from both sides of the aisle. It’s the same in other states. It’s not that they’re mean people, they just have other priorities,” says Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance Bob Hetzel about the difference of political priorities.
There are federal mandates that require states to prioritize things such as Medicaid, prison facilities, and infrastructure in their budgets. Once the main concerns are accounted for, states then focus on K-12 education over public universities. Hetzel says, “You can’t charge a prisoner tuition, or a kindergartener, but you can charge a college student the cost of education.”
The budget cuts have impacted the cost of student’s tuition, faculty size, and the overall abilities of the university. Over the past 13 years, UW-L last lost 78 positions, 70 of these positions being faculty. To offset the cuts, UW-L increased students’ tuition by $1,000 per academic year in a 2007 referendum. Since the tuition increase, UW-L hired 165 new faculty and 35 new staff members to increase “growth, availability, and accessibility.” UW-L wants the quality of learning to remain important.
In addition to UW-L, the 25 other state institutions are feeling the effects of the budget cuts. A few institutions, such as UW-Madison, also increased their tuition to counter the cuts. However, UW-Superior and UW-Parkside are experiencing rapid declines in enrollment declines and are seeking a $1 million loan from the UW system to avoid bankruptcy.
In 2013, Wisconsin Legislature enacted a two-year tuition freeze after the UW system revealed more than $600 million in reserves. On April 11, 2014 Governor Walker proposed freezing the tuition for an additional two years due to projections showing that the UW System still expects more than $1 billion in cash balances in June. Before the freeze, tuition had risen 5.6 percent or more every year for 10 years. Despite the freeze, holding tuition costs is not the solution to the overarching problem. Costs continue to increase in other areas than tuition, such as heating and cooling costs. Hetzel does not foresee a turn around for the UW System educational budget. “It’s a spiral that’s gotten out of control. It’s daunting and it’s to take a long time to recover.”
Tuition increases and total costs go beyond inflation due to the budget cuts on a national scale. In 1973, total cost for a four-year public institution was $2,710. Presently, the average total cost in 2013-14 is $18,391. In addition, the balance between what students pay and what the state covers has drastically shifted. In the 2013 financial year, state support only accounted for about 14% of total costs at UW-L, making student support about 86%.
UW-L alumni Nancy and Scott Bakkum have three children, two currently attending universities and one a recent graduate. “It worries us that our children are paying over 10 times the amount of tuition that we did 25 years ago. The worry of larger debts coupled with less job availability is our biggest fear for them,” says Nancy. Scott Bakkum graduated from UW-L in December of 1982 with debt for a $10,000 loan. The average student loan debt for the class of 2012 was $29,400, according to a report released in April by the Institute for College Access & Success' Project on Student Debt.
The chain reaction between budget cuts and tuition increases is causing most students to rely on loans. The amount students are able to borrow depends on the total costs of the university or college, making a need for greater financial aid. UW-L Professor Thomas Pribek speculates that the trend in budget cuts is being encouraged by the availability of borrowing financial aid. “It’s easier to increase tuition if you can automatically borrow,” says Pribek.
Current UW-L students are conscious of expense of college. Sophomore UW-L student Jared Karis says, “You are paying for a stressful time in your life, but I can’t imagine not going to school.” Students continue to attend college regardless the increasing costs. According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 68.3% of students who graduated high school in 2011 were enrolled in college.