Government Relations

Testimony on Pending Legislation: Assembly Bill 239

Before Colleges and Universities Committee
May 3, 2005
Testimony of Donald J. Mash
Senior Executive Vice President
University of Wisconsin System

Thank you, Representative Kreibich, and members of the Assembly Colleges and Universities committee, for the opportunity to address this important issue. I am Don Mash, senior Executive Vice President of the University of Wisconsin System, and I appreciate that the Legislature is open to having a frank discussion about the balancing of tuition and state support for our public higher education system. After my brief remarks, I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.

I appreciate the willingness of the committee to explore various options to help Wisconsin families afford a quality public higher education. I must express the UW System’s strong opposition to an annual 3 percent tuition cap which is not accompanied by an increase in state tax support for public higher education. Placing a 3 percent cap on tuition increases over the 2005-07 biennium, without a new GPR appropriation, will place an even greater burden on the UW System’s ability to provide a quality public education for our students and produce what the state needs from us.

The fiscal estimate of this proposal reveals that to replace the tuition revenue that would be lost, general purpose revenues to support the UW System would have to increase by $23.8 million in the first year of the 2005-07 biennium, and by an additional $21.8 million in the second year. During the 1999-2001 biennium, the Legislature enacted a similar “tuition freeze” proposal, but you offset the loss of tuition revenue by providing $28 million in additional state tax support.

If this proposal is adopted without additional state support, it would amount to additional cuts to our public higher education budget , which will affect the ability to provide our students with a quality education, and to carry out our public service mission for the citizens of Wisconsin. An additional loss of revenue of this magnitude – totaling nearly $70 million over the biennium – could mean larger class sizes; create greater difficulty in retaining our talented pool of faculty and staff; hamper our ability to remain competitive with other universities in attracting new talent; decrease our ability to assist in the state’s economic development; and restrict us from producing more degree holders.

In the past budget cycle, the university was the only one of the five major categories of state spending to take a substantial cut in state funding to its budget, a cut of about $100 million after tuition increases. Just to put this in some perspective for you – that cut amounts to more than the entire annual state-supported budget of UW-Oshkosh, UW-Green Bay and UW-River Falls combined.

What has been the result of these cuts in state funding? Fewer students from lower-income families are attending our universities, and students saw up to a 37.5 percent biennial tuition increase. And, still, this was not enough to fill the gap left by cuts in our state support. Enacting a 3 percent cap would have a similar effect. The state cannot afford to continue down this path of disinvesting in its public higher education system.

While I am aware that a UW education is still affordable for the majority of Wisconsin families, I am concerned that access for our lowest-income families is becoming increasing difficult. I believe that as the state’s premier developer of human potential, we have a responsibility to make sure every person has access to higher education, and the capacity to realize his or her ambitions and dreams. As such, I believe a better course of public policy is to consider supporting a “hold-harmless” tuition proposal that focuses on maintaining access for lower-income students by protecting them from further tuition increases, rather than by capping tuition for all students, including those in higher income brackets.

Such a “hold harmless” initiative would be based on the need based Wisconsin Higher Education Grants (WHEG) formula. By adding $6 million to the WHEG increases in the Governor’s 2005-07 budget proposal, you would be providing a grant which would cover dollar for dollar proposed tuition increases to nearly 25,000 students who qualify for WHEG funding.

Keeping tuition low and affordable for all students is, of course, a good thing, if we can do it. But when declining GPR forces tuition to rise significantly, without a conscious plan of complementary increases in financial aid to protect our lowest-income citizens, we start down a road that leaves behind the tremendous potential that resides in these citizens – be they low-income or part-time students. Together we must start a public policy discussion to determine the appropriate responsibility of the state versus the student to plan growth and more predictable costs.

State statues and mandates tie our hands as we strive to operate more efficiently, and only exacerbate the GPR – tuition – financial aid dynamic and our shrinking financial capacity. You can help by lifting some of these mandates.

We can do better for Wisconsin by proactively addressing these issues with the state’s future in mind. And it will take a partnership between the UW System and you, our state’s leaders, to work on solutions related to cost, support, and flexibility. With your help, we can do this better than we do it now, and deliver what Wisconsin’s bright future will require.

I again thank this committee for taking the initiative to foster these conversations. And while I do not support the current proposed legislation, I am optimistic that these discussions, and those to follow in the future, will benefit Wisconsin’s families in their pursuit of a quality educational experience.

Thank you again for this opportunity. I look forward to your questions.