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August 19, 2004

Testimony to Board of Regents

Stephanie Hilton, President of United Council

Good morning, my name is Stephanie Hilton and I am President of United Council of UW Students.  Thank you for the invitation to speak today. 

Back in February, students had the opportunity to present their priorities for the 2005-07 biennial budget.  In May, those same priorities were presented to members of the Legislature at a joint hearing by the Assembly Colleges and Universities Committee and the Senate’s Higher Education and Tourism Committee.  This biennial budget marks the first time students were invited to discuss their priorities with members of the Legislature before a budget proposal was on the table.   In addition, students made it clear that they wanted an aggressive budget proposal when over 30 students and their families faxed in requests to the Board of Regents in July. 

Wisconsin’s economy cannot survive without an educated workforce.  In the last state budget, the UW System was cut $250 million, the largest in its history, coupled with as 37 percent tuition increase.  These actions are destroying the chance to go to college for Wisconsin’s families. 

Today, you all have the opportunity to set the course for debate on the 2005-07 biennial budget.  This budget request should send a clear message communicating what the UW System needs from the state in order to remain a quality higher education system.  Full state funding for financial aid, minimal tuition increases, restoring faculty positions, competitive faculty salaries, maintaining services for students with disabilities, and the expansion of library and technology resources are included in the biennial budget options before you today, and all components reflect student priorities. 

I think we all can agree that the top priority is financial aid.  In the last ten years, tuition has increased at the doctoral institutions by $2,839, and $2,084 at the Comprehensives and Colleges.  All this while the maximum Wisconsin Higher Education Grant, the largest need-based aid program in the state, increased by a total of $510.  However, $285 of that—over half—was funded by raiding the UW auxiliary accounts in the last biennial budget  This funding choice suspended the link between financial aid and tuition increases, which students fought so hard for and won in the Budget Adjustment Bill under Governor McCallum.  

Using one-time money to fund on-going programs is fiscally irresponsible.  The state must fund financial aid at 100 percent.  Between 1998 and 2002 there was a decrease of 1,508 new enrolled freshmen from the lowest three quintiles, while there was an increase of 856 new enrolled freshmen for the top two quintiles.  The Wisconsin Higher Education Grant and Lawton Minority Undergraduate Retention Grant are not enough to solve this problem.  Creating a Hold Harmless program for the two lowest quintiles would provide grants to cover tuition increases.  This is a step towards regaining access, but should not be used as an excuse to raise tuition.  In order to protect students from tuition increases, it is the state’s obligation to provide financial aid that increases at the same dollar amount as tuition.  They cannot continue to gut UW System reserves to pay for financial aid. 

Shalyn Miller, a former UW-Waukesha student, now at UW-Milwaukee, testified in front of the Legislature in May regarding the need for full state funding of financial aid.  Shalyn paid $500 more to attend UW-Waukesha this past year, but only saw a $50 increase in financial aid. 

"For me, financial aid means being able to stay in school or not, the difference between working full time and working part time and being able to have health insurance or not. I work around 30 hours a week, and I feel that increasing my work load by even 5 hours a week would be too much for me to handle. My parents do not have health insurance, and therefore, even though I am a full-time college student I am not covered under their health insurance. I am forced to provide my own insurance. I have been diabetic since I was 5 years old, and going without health insurance is not an option for me."

Shalyn is not the only student in this situation, as there are about 20,000 UW students who receive the WHEG.  The Governor and Legislature must realize that the state budget cannot be balanced on the backs of students.  Students will be going to the polls and electing state representatives that believe the state must pay its share for the UW System.  United Council has joined with the New Voters Project to increase voter turnout for 18-24 year olds.  Together we will register over 85,000 students by October, and have already registered 55,000.  Wisconsin needs to elect people who champion funding for college to protect Wisconsin’s future. 

Tuition increases need to remain manageable for our families. 

In 1994, tuition at the UW Comprehensives was just under $2,000, compared with $4,000 this academic year.  In ten years tuition has doubled, with half of that increase happening in the current biennial budget.  One of the biennial budget funding options calls for an 8.7 percent increase in tuition, which some may think is reasonable.  However, such a rate translates into a $348 increase at the Comprehensives.  That same percentage would have yielded a $167 increase back in 1994.  Clearly, an eight percent tuition increase today is by no means comparable to a similar percentage ten years ago.  In addition, a $348 increase in tuition is only $150 shy of the $500 annual increases that students are facing this year. 

A 4.3 percent increase in tuition, paired with a 7.2 percent increase in state funding, is a fair and equitable proposal.  The tuition increase is only acceptable if state funding increases at a higher percentage than tuition.  According to the Department of Revenue, personal income growth is expected to be around four to five percent each year of the biennium.  This places the tuition increase within that range, making it more likely that students and their families will be able to afford the increase. 

Wisconsin ranks 30th for the percentage of its population that has a bachelor’s degree.  However, our neighbor to the west, Minnesota, is ranked 11th.  In order to compete with Minnesota, we need to increase the number of bachelor’s degree holders in the state of Wisconsin, and can only do that with a  renewed investment from the state. 

And we certainly can’t increase the number of degree holders without more faculty.  Others that have testified before me have shared personal stories of the importance of quality faculty in the classrooms.  Due to the 2003-05 budget cuts, the UW System has lost professors and on many campuses has not been able to fill vacancies due to retirements.  The state has also lost professors to other universities because Wisconsin’s salaries are no longer competitive.  UW System faculty play a major role in driving the state’s economy.  Losing quality faculty is not just a student problem, but a detriment to the entire state.  Faculty salaries must not be the sole financial burden of students. 

Finally, UW System needs to be able to provide comprehensive services for students with disabilities.  However, the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation used to fund these critical services, but after this academic year they will discontinue funding.  The state needs to pick up the tab for these services so all students have an accessible, quality, education. 

This biennial budget process has been more open and honest than it has been in the past.  UW System staff has worked jointly with United Council to make sure student priorities were included in the biennial budget request.  The opportunity for testimony speaks to the desire to ensure all voices are heard and that the Regents have enough information to make an informed vote. 

However, the vote that you cast today will determine whether or not students will be working with the UW System and Board of Regents at the Capitol.  If the Board passes a biennial budget request that calls for a higher tuition percentage increase than GPR, students will not be rallying with you beyond this proposal.      

I urge you to pass the funding option that calls for a 4.3 percent increase in tuition, paired with a 7.2 percent increase in state funding, so that we can work together get the state to reaffirm its financial commitment to the UW System. 

In addition, I want you to send something else to the Governor.  Some Whatifs.  Shel Silverstein wrote a poem about them, and I’ll share it with you. 

[Read poem.]

Some Whatifs have crawled inside my ears.  Whatif more students can’t afford to go to school?  Whatif more professors leave the System?  Whatif the state steals money again for financial aid?  Whatif the state doesn’t invest anymore funds the UW System? 

And the most nagging Whatif:  Whatif the Governor and Legislature decide to increase tuition rather than admit that the State of Wisconsin can no longer afford a quality, higher education system?

Return to Regents news summary for Aug. 19, 2004