As most members of the university community are aware, the state legislature is in the early stages of responding to Gov. Doyle's recently proposed budget.
Students, staff and faculty care deeply about the consequences of the developing debate, as do many people not directly affiliated with the university, and so it should not come as a surprise that there already has appeared a growing assemblage of public declarations, allegations and suspicions about the university's stance on student tuition.
This is unfortunate because the issue-and the facts associated with the issue-are far more important to the future health of the university than opportunistic rhetoric. Let me take this opportunity to state once again my position on tuition, which has been shared uniformly with Doyle, legislative and student leaders, and citizens throughout the state for the last several years.
Let me also unambiguously rebut a recent commentary alleging that two members of my staff, Don Nelson and Kristi Thorson, somehow misrepresented our position on tuition to student representatives while covertly arguing in favor of tuition increases before the legislature. Mr. Nelson and Ms. Thorson have consistently delivered to all audiences the message outlined below, and claims to the contrary are both irresponsible and wrong.
The continued rise in student tuition poses a truly serious challenge for the university and for our society. In a brochure recently distributed to all members of the legislature, we placed tuition at the forefront of our concerns, noting that tuition rose by more than a third in the last two years, that the average debt for graduates has increased 38 percent over the last decade, and that this trend is endangering the ability of many families to send their children to school, particularly if not offset by growth in need-based financial aid.
We additionally demonstrated that tuition as a percentage of family income has nearly tripled over the last 30 years, and that tuition now exceeds general program revenue support for the university by nearly 13 percent.
With this background, we have argued strongly against construing tuition as an inexhaustible alternative to taxpayer support for higher education, and both the governor and the legislature are sensitive to the problem. At the same time, the people of this state have elected representatives who advocate tax relief, and there is simply not enough general purpose revenue available to meet all demands, especially given the continuing structural deficit in the state budget.
Consequently, we must look for a delicate balance of modest tuition increases, offset by growth in need-based financial aid, new general revenue support in whatever measure possible, and increased efficiencies in how we do our business.
We are working closely with the governor's office, members of the legislature, and community leaders throughout the state to help construct this balance. We hope and expect that student leaders will join us in this effort.
And, in the end, it is important to remember a few additional facts. This university will continue to have one of the lowest tuition rates among its Big Ten peers, even with the increase included in Doyle's proposed budget.
On average, almost half our students graduate with some debt; for those who graduate with debt, the average amount is approximately $18,000 and takes about three years to pay off-an amount and a period of debt payment roughly equivalent to the purchase of a car.
While regrettable, this debt payment must be considered in context: an undergraduate degree from the UW-Madison enhances average lifetime earnings by more than one million dollars.
We're still a remarkable bargain, and we're working hard to keep it that way. We should keep our eyes focused on the facts and the task at hand.