Around UWM and, I imagine, around the UW-System, a glint appears in the eyes of certain administrators when talk turns to “lifting the cap” on tuition. Sometimes they say it openly: a 3% raise in tuition would “solve” all of our current fiscal woes.
Yet this is the rare instance in which Governor Walker and the Republican-dominated Wisconsin state legislature have it right. Both fiscally and morally, raising tuition makes no sense.
The UW System has been hit hard by a combination of budget cuts and state policies. Passed in July, Act 55 weakened both job security and academic freedom. A vicious $250 million in budget cuts followed more than a decade of declining state investment in the UW system. The ensuing regime of austerity threatens the very heart of the Wisconsin Idea: the ability of the university system to serve all residents of the state.
Public funding of education has declined markedly across the country. As a result, universities have become increasingly tuition-driven, raising the price tag of a college education. Universities compete for international and out-of-state students, because these students are compelled to pay more for education.
Increasing tuition costs have already resulted in dramatically escalating student debt. At a certain point, public universities will simply price themselves out of the market.
In the past couple of years, the crisis of declining public investment has been amplified by a drop in enrollment. There are fewer students applying, and more competition across the system for these students.
Here is where the hoped-for raise in tuition makes little fiscal sense. A raise in tuition would diminish the pool of students who could afford to pay for college. Even after the current demographic dip in enrollments corrects itself, continuing to increase tuition will make a college education beyond the means of many high school graduates in Wisconsin.
Raising tuition contradicts the very idea behind public higher education in Wisconsin. The lofty principles articulated in the early 20th century Wisconsin Idea held that the university should benefit everyone in the state. In the vision of the Wisconsin Idea, the university was to serve the people by providing useful knowledge through research. Importantly, the university would also instruct the broadest cohort possible. Sometimes, in the early days, professors would ride horses to remote corners of the state in order to instruct farmers in the newest agricultural innovations.
At UWM, our mission is to be the urban campus of the UW System. Applied to an urban university, the Wisconsin Idea means that UWM should seek to educate the broadest and most diverse cohort of students possible, including those in Milwaukee. Serving all of the state means extending our access to more rather than fewer students from urban public school systems. Since these districts have high rates of poverty, that means keeping tuition as low as possible.
The current regime of austerity challenges our system of public education. But raising tuition to keep the UW system afloat threatens both the fiscal health and the founding ideals of higher education in Wisconsin.