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Gov. Scott Walker's proposed tuition cut would be the first in decades at UW-Madison.

Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to cut tuition for University of Wisconsin System students would be the first time that cost has fallen at the state’s flagship campus in decades.

For the cut to be effective, though, one expert warned that lawmakers must follow through with Walker’s pledge to increase state funding to make up for lost tuition revenue at UW institutions, or students could wind up paying more for their education in the long run.

According to an estimate released Wednesday by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, cutting tuition for undergraduate Wisconsin residents by 1 percent — about $104 per year for a student at UW-Madison — would reduce tuition revenue in the System by $15 million over the state’s two-year budget cycle.

Walker has not indicated how large of a cut he will seek, saying those details will be released in his 2017-2019 budget proposal, but has said increased state funding will cover the cost.

During a visit to La Crosse on Wednesday, Walker said he will also propose additional new funding for the UW System beyond the price of the tuition cut.

But he told a conservative Green Bay radio host that he would not necessarily seek to give UW all of the $42.5 million budget increase the System has requested. And he said new funding would be tied to performance measures, such as student graduation rates, how long it takes to get a degree and how many students take jobs within the state.

“I want to make sure the money we do invest is going into teachers in the classroom teaching our students the best possible (way), getting them graduated, not just enrolled, and keeping them here in the state of Wisconsin where they’re employed,” Walker told WTAQ-AM.

Securing that money could be a challenge, however, given that Walker and lawmakers have said they will seek new funding for several other initiatives in the budget.

“My colleagues and I have a number of priorities this year, including K-12 education, Medicaid and continuing our commitment to keeping property taxes low,” said Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette. “I’m not against discussing a reduction in tuition, but there are a lot of moving pieces that require consideration before approving a reduction.”

Expert: State funding needed to fill gap

Lawmakers will need to fund the tuition cut in order to realize its goal of reducing the cost of college, said Thomas Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Without new funding, UW institutions may reduce their course offerings — a step many have taken since the 2015-2017 budget cut $250 million from the System — leading to larger class sizes and potentially making it harder for students to earn credits toward their degrees, Harnisch said.

“If a student takes another year to graduate because they can’t get into the classes they need, you really have to question whether this is the best way forward,” he said. “The rubber will meet the road when the state budget is proposed.”

Harnisch echoed the points UW System officials made last fall when the Board of Regents approved a plan for a small tuition increase during the 2018-19 school year.

System President Ray Cross cautioned in October against “tuition tunnel vision,” saying other factors — such as how much financial aid students receive and the time it takes them to get a degree — also affect how much students and families pay for college. The System’s $42.5 million budget request would fund student advising services and efforts to reduce time to get a degree, among other initiatives.

UW System officials have not yet said whether they support Walker’s call for a tuition cut.

“We are being cautious about commenting any further on the governor’s announcement to cut tuition until we know more details about his proposal and additional reaction by the Legislature,” System spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said. “Until then, we will continue to aggressively pursue our common goals of college affordability and workforce development.”

The promise to backfill a tuition cut is the latest commitment to increase spending that has left some budget watchers wondering how Walker will balance the budget without resorting to the types of accounting gimmicks he criticized his predecessor for using.

He has also promised a “significant” though unspecified increase in general K-12 aid, more money for rural schools, nearly $70 million more for road maintenance and repairs, $65 million more for local road aid, $35.5 million more for broadband expansion and $10 million for a sales tax holiday.

“I find it difficult to understand how all these various promises can be fulfilled, unless you do them in very small, symbolic ways,” Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance president Todd Berry said.

The last time tuition for in-state UW-Madison students decreased from one year to the next was more than 30 years ago, when it went from $892 for the 1980-81 school year to $865 in 1981-82.

Noel Radomski, executive director of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education and an expert on the history of the state’s universities, did not know of any time lawmakers mandated a tuition cut at UW schools.

From the mid-1980s until Walker and lawmakers froze UW System tuition in 2013, UW-Madison tuition and fees rose faster than the rate of inflation, according to data from the university’s financial aid office. Tuition and fees this year cost Wisconsin undergraduates $10,488.

University officials say increasing tuition costs, which matched the trend at public colleges and universities nationwide, were the result of declining state funding. Walker blamed the increases on “the growth of bureaucracies (and) of staffing.”

Other states have cut tuition

Tuition cuts have been one of the strategies lawmakers and institutions have used to rein in how much students and their families must pay, amid growing public scrutiny of rising college costs and debt loads.

Legislators in Minnesota and Washington state have in recent years cut tuition for students at public colleges and universities, and a handful of private colleges have done so as well.

Other states, including Wisconsin, have frozen tuition, while some have boosted funding for student financial aid programs. Wisconsin’s tuition freeze affects onnly undergraduate Wisconsin residents; tuition for out-of-state students and those in graduate or professional programs has continued to rise in recent years.

Democrats in Wisconsin have proposed legislation to allow people with student debt to refinance their loans, but the measure has not advanced in the Republican-dominated Capitol.

The La Crosse Tribune contributed to this report.

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Nico Savidge is the higher education reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.

Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.