By Michael Brickman, Institute for Reforming Government
An assumption baked in to so-called “free college” proposals is the idea that college is unaffordable and so government must step in and provide it as an entitlement. Don’t tell that to the millions of hardworking students and parents, who pay out of pocket, in what remains the largest source of payments for higher education by far.
But most of this discussion also ignores a fundamental fact: higher education can be made more affordable than it is today. Significant annual increases to tuition and fees, an arms race for more resort-like amenities to attract students, and an explosion of academic programs with questionable economic or societal value have been the norm for decades, but this need not be the case.
Since 2013, Wisconsin has capped tuition increases at zero for in-state students after many years of regular annual increases that were nearly always above inflation and occasionally reached double digits. The freeze has not prevented increases for out-of-state students, to some fees, or cost of living expenses, however it has made a dramatic difference in making the state’s universities more competitive and affordable. Gov. Tony Evers in his proposed budget wanted to extend the tuition freeze.
But that cap looks likely to disappear after a recent vote by Wisconsin’s Joint Committee on Finance, with a promise to keep increase in check. Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) issued a strong warning that, “If UW decides to jack up tuition in a tone-deaf manner, this body will take action.”
It remains uncertain, however, whether proactive caps will be enacted or, if not, how large an increase might spur a future legislature to action. In short: it’s a big risk. The vote follows a recommendation in an in-depth report to reform higher education in the Badger State by Sen. Roger Roth (R-Appleton).
A freeze cannot go on forever, especially with costs for materials, labor, and energy headed upwards and fears of broader inflation on the horizon driven by Washington spending. However, a good amount of that spending is going to backstop losses by colleges and universities. That leads us to wonder whether now is the right time to unfreeze tuition.
- Is now the appropriate time to end the freeze? We respect the job former Gov. Tommy Thompson has done at the UW, but administrators there (in good budget times and bad) have never been satisfied with the system’s funding levels. We’ve heard anecdotally that some K-12 schools and universities around the country are quietly saying that they may not be able to find ways to spend all of the federal money that has been coming in torrents since last year. The UW should at least do a better job of explaining how it will spend the federal money and then identifying what critical gaps remain before the freeze is removed.
- Can students afford an increase right now? Despite federal cash infusions to both educational institutions and individuals, many families across the state are struggling to overcome lost jobs and businesses during the pandemic, increases in the cost of basic goods, as well as other economic challenges that predate the pandemic. Has the legislature carefully considered whether now is the right time to add a new burden to students and parents?
- Is UW doing more with less? We are strong supporters of many of Senator Roth’s other recommendations such as doing more to meet students where they are, reconsidering the system’s decades-long building spree, and evaluating whether many academic programs are actually meeting the needs of students and the state’s economy. Without the checks and balances that the tuition freeze provides, will the UW meet some of these tough challenges and make the necessary leaps to stay competitive and innovative?
If it is removed, we hope the legislature will only do so with the following provisions:
- Whether now or in the future, any increase in tuition should only be enacted after the UW presents a clear plan for where will those extra tuition dollars will be spent and why a tuition increase is the only option to pay for those essential expenses.
- To prevent runaway increases in the future, enact a hard cap tied to inflation.
- The UW should enact a clear plan to invest in innovation and offer more flexible, affordable options such as UW Flex.
- Current student financial aid offered by the state is spread too thinly. Instead, Wisconsin should target aid to those who a) need it and b) have worked hard and demonstrated strong potential in school or the workplace.
- The UW should enact a clear plan to do a better job of meeting students where they are, rather than simply investing in traditional brick-and-mortar campuses.
- The UW should also develop a process for ongoing evaluation of academic programs, creation of ones that are needed to remain competitive, and removal of those that are not serving students or taxpayers well.
- Finally, the legislature must make it clear that it will hold the UW to its promises. It’s up to the legislature to ensure careful legislative oversight and strong accountability in this and future budgets.
Michael Brickman was a senior advisor for Secretary Betsy DeVos at the U.S. Department of Education prior to joining IRG as a senior fellow.