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Saturday, June 22, 2024

A partnership fit for Wisconsin

The state of Wisconsin faces a $3.6 billion budget deficit in the coming 2011-13 biennium. Gov. Scott Walker will undoubtedly approve deep cuts across the board, including slashing education dollars for institutions like UW-Madison. To offset dwindling state funding, Chancellor Biddy Martin is taking steps to ensure the university remains nationally competitive while accommodating for tough economic circumstances.

Martin's proposed New Badger Partnership aims to do just that. The partnership essentially asks legislators for more statutory flexibility in construction projects, procurement and setting tuition and salary levels. Martin believes the university could save millions by sidestepping many bureaucratic state regulations. At the same time, the partnership will improve the university's faculty relations and retention.

Her reasoning is sound. Progressive critics would argue that it is a public university chancellor's responsibility to fight for state funding, regardless of economic and political climate. Unfortunately, these idealistic aspirations are just not possible in today's economy. Martin is right to bring bold ideas to the legislative bargaining table, and not just fire off impractical demands from the top of Bascom Hill.

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The new chair of the Assembly Colleges and Universities Committee and notorious Madison critic, state Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, has suggested capping tuition increases around 4 percent. With all due respect, the governor should ignore Nass outright. Coupled with significant funding cuts, a tuition increase cap makes little sense if the university is going to remain competitive on a national stage.

Walker would be wise to respect the chancellor's proposal. We understand funding cuts are inevitable, but any investment in education, especially at UW-Madison, reaps benefits for the entire state. The university is an economic powerhouse for Wisconsin, generating billions of dollars in research and producing thousands of work-ready graduates every year. More flexibility will lessen the sting of decreased funding while simultaneously helping the university to continue to grow. 

The partnership is not without flaws, however. From the student perspective, any mention of tuition increases sounds threatening. In the past, Martin has indicated that she would like to see UW tuition levels hover in the median range of our Big Ten peer institutions. For that to happen, tuition would have to increase by almost $3000, over 30 percent. That's no small jump, just ask students in the University of California system.

Martin's continued answer to the tuition hike is increased financial aid dollars and awareness. On the surface that sounds sensible, but we have yet to see tangible figures. Right now, students qualify for need-based financial aid if their families earn less than $80,000 a year. If Martin is asking the state for more flexibility, then perhaps she should give her students some, too.

There needs to be an increased effort to make financial aid more visible. Additionally, increasing the maximum family income to qualify for need-based aid would ease the burden of tuition increases. We need to make sure potential students aren't turned off by sticker shock, and that affordable education is still possible in Wisconsin.

Walker is set to announce his budget in the coming weeks.

By then, we'll have a more concrete picture of what to expect in terms of state funding. With any luck, he will carefully consider the New Badger Partnership when crafting his budget. To date, Martin has been nothing if not an effective leader, and with some minor tweaks, we're confident her proposal will take the university in the right direction.


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