Ben Franklin tuition
Ricardo Reitmeyer/

Each June or July, the UW System’s Board of Regents meets to set tuition rates for the next academic year.

Despite acknowledging concerns about the increasing costs associated with earning a college degree, the Regents this past June ultimately voted to increase tuition by 5.5 percent for the 2012-13 academic year for in-state undergraduates. It was the sixth straight year in which resident undergrads attending one of the UW System’s 13 four-year campuses have had their tuition bumped up by that exact same percentage. Add it up, and tuition and mandatory fees at UW-Madison are topping $10,000 for the first time in 2012-13, costing an in-state undergrad $10,378.

As usual, when reporting on this jump I noted that a driving force behind this tuition increase was the perpetual state cuts to higher education; in this case, Gov. Scott Walker’s 2011-13 biennial budget signed the previous summer slashed state funding for the UW System by a record-tying $250 million. That hit jumped to record levels last winter after the UW System was told it needed to absorb an additional cut of $65.7 million over the biennium to help balance the state's budget.

Despite such caveats, the headlines associated with these articles invariably read something like, “Regents hike tuition.” And the public fumes.

“The usual pushback goes something like this, ‘The university needs to solve its budget problems by cutting waste before raising tuition,’” says Grant Petty, a UW-Madison professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences. “But I haven’t heard specific, credible suggestions as to where that waste is, certainly not in amounts that come close to closing that gap we’re facing. From where I stand it’s clear that the fat is long gone and that we’re now cutting into the bone.”

The fact that the public isn't clearly drawing a line between cause (state cuts to the UW System) and effect (yearly 5.5 percent tuition increases) has frustrated many in higher education for years. Indeed, nearly 100 percent of undergraduate education at UW-Madison is funded via a combination of tuition and taxpayer support, with tuition now making up the larger proportion of that funding formula.

But what’s one to do?

As this Inside Higher Ed article notes, some public universities now are trying to reframe the debate. As that piece points out, “Recognizing the pressure to keep prices down, several (institutions) have proposed budgets that would hold tuition level if states agree to up their financial commitment to the university, hoping to shift the pressure to state lawmakers.”

In fact, it was just last Friday that the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents adopted a biennial budget proposal that’ll freeze undergrad, in-state tuition — as long as the state bumps up its investment. The Star Tribune reports that the University of Minnesota is asking for $91.6 million more — or an 8.4 percent increase over the current biennium. Part of that, $28.4 million over two years, would be linked to a tuition freeze for Minnesota’s in-state undergraduates.

"This budget reflects a new tone, a new commitment and a new conversation," Regent Laura Brod said, according to the Star Tribune. "And I think all three are welcome."

According to that report, Regent Clyde Allen said that the university is simply requesting a small portion back of what has been cut in recent years -- and in return, it promises a tuition freeze.

"That is a bargain," he said.

Is reframing this debate in such a way a shrewd move? Is this a tactic higher education officials in Wisconsin should pursue?

I posed that question to several on the UW-Madison campus this week and got a range of interesting responses.

“In my view, the Wisconsin Legislature would be doing the state's students and families a great service by helping keep tuition manageable by offering UW System increased state support in exchange for holding tuition flat, and continuing to make serving in-state residents a priority,” Sara Goldrick-Rab, an associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology, says in an email. “Furthermore, performance-based incentive funding should be available for campuses that manage to grow/expand enrollment for in-state residents.”

Petty, who stresses that he is only speaking as an individual faculty member (and not as a member of the University Committee), isn’t so sure that putting state leaders in such a box is a wise move.

“I'm not convinced that it's an effective strategy to try to bargain with the state over tuition increases versus state support, because the university doesn't hold many bargaining chips,” he says. “The state can say, ‘No, we can't afford to increase support,’ and, ‘No, you can't raise tuition,’ and that's the end of the conversation.”

Brad Barham, a UW-Madison professor of agricultural and applied economics who chaired the University Committee last year, notes that in December, the Faculty Senate passed a resolution calling for a “new social compact” between the state, higher education and the private sector that aimed to guarantee a more stable funding base of taxpayer support for the university in order to end the upward pressure on tuition.

Barham says this proposal is similar to the one made by the University of Minnesota’s regents, but without an explicit commitment on a tuition freeze. He adds that the Faculty Senate “resolution was a more general call to forge a social compact than it was a specific proposal.”

Mark Cook, the current chair of the University Committee, similarly says that a bump in state taxpayer support for the university could slow the rate at which tuition would have to increase, but he stopped short of saying tuition shouldn’t go up. The professor of animal and biological sciences says that if the university is to keep its best and brightest and remain a first-rate public institution in the years to come, it’ll likely take a “mix of both state investment and tuition,” which he argues is still better than having all of that burden continue to fall on the shoulders of the students.

As Madison as it gets: Get Cap Times' highlights sent daily to your inbox

Adds Barham: “Building a solid base level of state funding is critical to the future of high quality and affordable higher education in the state and especially in UW System campuses that do not have the same potential as UW-Madison to generate alternative revenue streams. And, really, prosperity over the medium- to long-term in Wisconsin hinges on getting this situation turned around. We need innovation, life-long learning, job training, and engaged and informed citizens if we are going to prosper economically and socially. We need it statewide, which means that we need the social compact that the Faculty Senate called for last year.”

As the Inside Higher Ed article notes, this tactic of trying to publicly tie tuition to state appropriations has been tried before –- and with varying degrees of success. That piece says that the University of California system in 2011 attempted to increase state investment by proposing a 16 percent tuition hike over the next several years if the state didn’t start investing more.

But those efforts failed. Now, Inside Higher Ed notes that the leadership within the California State University system is saying that unless voters OK a tax-increase referendum next month, $250 million will be cut from the system and tuition will have to jump 5 percent, which is on top of an already-approved 9-percent hike. Similarly, the officials with the separate University of California system are predicting a tuition hike of 20 percent if they have to take an identical $250 million cut.

To be clear, there are some within UW-Madison and the UW System who have told me over the past year that it’s pointless to push state lawmakers for a significant reinvestment in higher ed because the dollars simply aren’t there as the economy struggles to gain momentum. And even if tax collections do increase a bit more than expected, it’s looking like a good chunk of any additional funds will need to go toward the state’s medical assistance budget or other priorities, including K-12 education.

But Bill Tracy, an agronomy professor and another former chair of the University Committee, disagrees with this hands-off, don’t-anger-the-state-Republican-leadership approach.

“I would make the argument that we can’t afford not to invest in education,” he says. “We, as a society, have to invest in the future, even if that means raising taxes. If we don’t and we cut back on infrastructure -- whether it’s roads and bridges or education -- our economy is going to be less competitive. In China and much of the rest of the world they are investing like crazy in education, and we are going to be left behind.”

Likewise, Tracy doesn’t understand why there isn’t more of a public push to support education.

“As the state’s investment in higher education goes down, tuition goes up and it becomes much harder for many middle-income and working-class families to help send their children to college,” he says. “That turns directly into lost earning power and lost human capital. A person who gets a college degree is going to make a lot more money and bring a lot more to the economy and might even become one of these so-called 'job creators.' Statistics strongly indicate that investing in peoples’ education is the best investment we can make in terms of growing the economy.”

So instead of drawing the proverbial line in the sand and saying the UW won’t raise tuition as long as the state bumps up its support, Tracy believes it makes more sense to convince the public of the importance of investing in the future.

“We have lost sight in this country that investing in our children is a good thing,” he says.

Petty has a similar take: “Fundamentally, what we really need is for the Wisconsin public to come to see the value of public higher education and research as a sound investment in the future of the state, not a drain on resources, and to see much more clearly how rising tuition and declining state support are inextricably linked. And we need that public sentiment to translate into the political will to appropriate more revenue in support of our schools.”