By Jonathan Cook, Courtney Brusoe, Zeyao Wu, Jingyu Liang
The Walker administration pushed for an extension of the tuition freeze in the 2014 gubernatorial campaign. The Walker tuition freeze is a restriction in the amount a UW school can charge an undergraduate student as well as a freeze of the tax support from the state. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (jsonline.com) the reduction in revenue is estimated at $210 million across the two year freeze, accounting for a loss of $181 million in state tax support and $28 million from tuition if UW schools increased their tuition only 2% per year.
The tuition freeze legislation came as a response to a 2012 audit that found large sums of money in the unrestricted budget of UW schools. Many within the state legislature believed the large sums of money to be a malpractice that caused undergraduate students to pay more than they should, so they passed the freeze in tuition and a freeze in state funding as a reaction. $648 million was found across hundreds of accounts in unrestricted cash balances across all UW schools. The UW system claimed the majority of that balance, $441.2 million, was already planned to be used, leaving $207 million in reserve.
While “unrestricted” suggests that the fund was extra money, the balance is viewed as a savings account to cushion the blow against decreased enrollment or emergencies. The forced cap in revenue has caused many UW schools to use their savings to maintain normal functions and to pay their faculty without making deep budget cuts.
Joe Gow, Chancellor of UW – La Crosse said, “86% of the UW-L budget is to pay faculty members. If schools have a cap in revenue, they are not as competitive in recruiting top professors and not as able to maintain the highly trained staff they already have.”
Two years after the beginning of the tuition freeze, the UW school system released a 250 page budget report. This time, the system was much more transparent about where the unrestricted budget money is and what it is for. According to the report, $973 million is classified as unrestricted, but $798 million is planned for specific expenses like construction projects or new equipment. Of the remaining balance, $111 million is classified as emergency use and $64 million as discretionary. The discretionary account is less than half of what was found after the 2012 audit. The emergency fund accounts for around 3% of the total $6 billion UW budget.
The original legislation pertaining to the tuition was for two years. Therefore, if the state legislature does not renew the law the tuition freeze is scheduled to end at the end of the current 2014-2015 school year. Scott Walker and his administration was reelected for another term on a platform that includes an extension of the tuition freeze.
Many students think the tuition freeze is necessary in order to afford college. Kelsey Pierce who studied Therapeutic Recreation at UW-L, said, “I live in great pressure this semester, because I have to work three nights a week from 5:30pm to 11:59 pm, and on Sunday sometimes to earn money for my tuition. Tuition is high for me because my parents don’t pay for me. I know that they [the university] will increase tuition to maintain the quality of the university in the future, I just want them increase it within the reasonable range so I can afford it.”
Another UW-L student, Katie Faster thought that the tuition freeze was a good policy to help students graduate. “I am a lucky person,” Faster said. “My grandparents help me pay a part of tuition. Some students’ families have the ability to pay tuition, but their parents don’t pay for their children. These students cannot get financial support because of their parents’ income. It is terrible for them.” Faster really encourages tuition freeze practices on campus. Yet, Faster said, “Some of them might not have enough money to pay for faculty salary and new campus buildings because the state cut the funding.”
While a two year freeze in tuition was manageable by many universities, a further extension could be problematic. According to a 2014 UW report, some schools like UW - Superior and UW - Milwaukee are reduced to a very small savings account. UW - Superior specifically is $1.9 million in debt. UW - Milwaukee is reduced to only $1 million in reserves.
According to Chancellor Gow, “Tuition freeze is a popular topic, but providing students with a quality education is hard to provide with a frozen tuition. When the frozen tuition is ended, it will likely increase significantly to help make up for the loss.”
While the tuition freeze may sound good to current and future undergraduate students, many students admit that they don’t really understand the repercussions of the freeze on the universities.
Senior UW-L students Aimee Goodew, Amber Rodriguez, and Hannah Bartelt acknowledged that they didn’t know much about the tuition freeze. However, after becoming more aware of the negative impact on universities, the popular response of interviewees was that while they didn’t want tuition to rise, they still thought it was important for universities to maintain adequate reserves for unexpected projects and maintaining the university.
“Since I was here during the Drake fire, I know that emergency stuff like that does happen, so it is important for the university to have reserves for situations like that. I would like the tuition to be kept frozen, but I still think it’s important to have those reserves,” Goodew stated.
Similarly, Rodriguez agreed saying, “From a student’s perspective I like it [the tuition freeze] because it costs an arm and a leg to go to college. Most people can’t afford to go without taking loans. From a university perspective, it lowers the chance for a university to compete if something goes wrong--there will be no money to fix anything.”
Bartelt added, “I think the tuition freeze is good but there should be a plan for the future. That money in the unrestricted funds should be used for its original purpose, not to make up for the loss in tuition. And what’s going to happen when that unrestricted money runs out? What will the university do then?”
University officials say it is important to remember that paying tuition is more than a cost of going to school. A lot of times the tuition that is paid is for expanding university function and investing in the university’s future. Chancellor Gow said, “We [UW schools] are a not-for-profit entity. We want to increase the tuition to provide a better experience for our students.”