Biennial budget proposes tuition cut, SUFAC changes

Kimberly Wethal, Co Editor-in Chief

Gov. Scott Walker released the 2017-19 biennial budget for the State of Wisconsin last week. In a change of pace from the prior budget cycle where the University of Wisconsin System received $250 million less in funding, Walker is now proposing to fund the public higher education system by an increase of $140.2 million.

With the investment in the UW System, Walker says he’s looking to make Wisconsin “a leader in providing quality higher education that is affordable.”

“Working with the UW Board of Regents, we are building a performance-based system for new funds,”  Walker said in his budget address. “This will include criteria like the number of graduates, the length of time to graduate, how many graduates are employed, and how many are in high-demand areas within the state. We want student success to help fuel the growth of the Wisconsin economy.”

The budget will need to pass through the Joint Finance Committee, undergo public hearings and be amended by the the Senate and the Assembly before Walker signs it into law; however, as it currently stands, here’s how the budget could impact the university.

What’s in the budget?

The state biennial budgets involves a multitude of variables in the form of funding to the state agencies. Where it concerns the University of Wisconsin System, Walker proposed increased funding and new initiatives last week.

Here’s the breakdown:

A fifth year of frozen tuition for in-state undergraduate students.

A 5 percent tuition decrease for in-state undergraduate students for the 2018-19 academic year, and $35 million in state funding to offset the costs of any lost revenue at the campuses’ educational operating budgets, which Walker said he promised to do when he spoke at the UW-W College Republicans first meeting of the spring semester.

Language that would allow students to“opt out” to segregated fees.

An increase in state funding overall by $100 million – keep in mind this does not include the $35 million in tuition offset costs – for new initiatives.

A new performance-based system that would allow the UW System Board of Regents to dispense additional funding to the colleges, which was first proposed at $42.5 million. As of now, the proposed areas in which campuses would be allocated funding are affordability, student work readiness, administrative efficiency and service.

A initiative to reward professors who spend more time in classrooms through institutional performance funding.

Overall, the funding for the UW System adds up to $140.2 million.

Student Impact

At this phase, the ’17-19 biennial budget has the most impact on underclassmen undergraduates, for obvious reasons – unless you are a current junior or senior who’s looking to stay past their eighth semester or has plans to come back right away for graduate school, the UW System portion of the budget won’t have much of an impact on you.

Those who will be enrolling for at least part of the 2018-19 academic year could see a lot of changes – and a “wonderful opportunity” for students to become politically engaged where it concerns Walker’s proposed requirement where students could “opt out” of segregated fees, Jeff Arnold, vice chancellor of Administrative Affairs, said.

Segregated fees, known at UW-Whitewater as SUFAC, allocates funds to student organizations.

Arnold said he wasn’t sure how a system would benefit the university. Student organizations lead to leadership opportunities and exposure to professionals in a student’s field of study, he said.

Additionally, Arnold said it would be hard to ensure students who didn’t pay SUFAC fees aren’t benefitting from the services.

“Do we cover their ears when the marching band plays?” Arnold said.

Arnold said the university is financially in a “good place” to ride out a fifth in-state student tuition freeze.

“It’s been a long period of tuition freezes for the university,” Arnold said. “That limits some of the things we’d like to do in terms of getting students degrees faster and making the experience on campus more enjoyable.”

Should the 5 percent tuition decrease make it into the finalized budget, students could expect to see a savings of $384 in during the 2018-19 academic year, bringing student tuition down to a little under $7,300.

While the tuition cut would make college more affordable for all students, Arnold said, he hopes that the investment dollars UW-W would receive from the state will be enough to offset the revenue losses.

It’s still too early to know if the proposed $35 million in offset costs will be enough to cover the UW System, Arnold said.

“We’ll be very watchful of the process as it goes forward,” he said. “I think what we’d know for sure as an institution that’s growing, we’d be short some revenue under the current model because the estimates were based off a certain time and certain enrollment level. Where you add students, that revenue is lost and not anticipated by that $35 million.”

Representative opinions

Some state legislators are applauding Walker for his commitment to put more funding into public education.

Rep. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) says that Walker is picking up slack where the UW System has failed.

“Governor Walker and Republican legislators have found ways to provide savings for students and lower debt accumulation in obtaining a degree,” Nass said in a news release. “The cut would save the average student $360 a year on top of the more than $6,300 that students have saved during four years of the tuition freeze.”

Nass is also in support of Walker’s proposed option to allow students to opt out of segregated fees, saying, “A significant number of students receive no benefit from these programs, but the fees add on unnecessary costs.”

Sen. Janis Ringhand (D-Evansville) said in a news release that she is glad to see Walker “change his tune.”

“He finally grasps that a great public education system is good politics,” Ringhand said.