Gov. Tony Evers announced a significant funding increase for higher education in his much anticipated 2023-25 biennial budget address last Wednesday.
Evers’ proposed budget promises an additional $305.9 million for the University of Wisconsin System over the next two years. Though the number is nearly $130 million less than the $435.6 million increase the UW System requested, university leaders praised the governor in statements last week.
“I look forward to working with the legislature and budget-writing committee to talk about how we can partner with them to address some of the state’s economic challenges,” UW System President Jay Rothman said in a tweet.
“We thank Governor Evers for recognizing that the University of Wisconsin System is one of our state’s strongest assets, an economic driver, and a center for education and innovation,” Mnookin said in a reaction to Evers’ budget address.
The full budget will be debated in the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee (JFC) this spring, where Republicans have promised to throw out Evers’ proposal in favor of building their own. The Legislature will vote on the budget in late spring before sending it to Evers for approval this summer.
Evers funds tuition promise amid GOP doubts
Evers’ budget includes $24.5 million for the Wisconsin Tuition Promise, a program scheduled to launch this fall aimed at increasing enrollment among low-income and first-generation students.
The program would ensure Wisconsin resident undergraduates whose annual household adjusted gross income is $62,000 or less can attend any UW institution without paying tuition or fees.
“Funding the Wisconsin Tuition Promise is a game-changer, as it will develop talent that is needed in Wisconsin’s workforce,” Rothman said in a tweet.
Evers included $24.5 million in funding for the program. But Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told the Daily Cardinal last week that Republicans will “probably not” approve it.
“If the university wants to go out and raise private resources, I think that’s an excellent use of their fundraising prowess if they choose to,” Vos said. “I think it’s probably not something we’re going to be able to fund at the state level when we see so many folks struggling with paying their taxes and all of the other bills.”
Although the UW System intended to raise $13.8 million in private funds to cover program expenses during the 2023-24 academic year, it planned to seek state funding to cover subsequent years.
The UW System remains committed to funding the Wisconsin Tuition Promise’s inaugural 2023 student cohort, spokesperson Mark Pitsch said in an email Friday. It is unclear how the UW System will continue to support the program for future cohorts without state funding.
Tuition freeze once again in limbo
For the first time since 2019, Gov. Evers did not include designated funding for UW’s undergraduate resident tuition freeze in the budget.
The tuition freeze was first enacted in 2013 at the urging of Gov. Scott Walker. Since then, the university has raised tuition costs and enrollment of out-of-state and international students to cover the difference, according to Wisconsin Public Radio.
The freeze persisted until May 2021, when the JFC voted to suspend the state-mandated freeze and allow the UW System to decide whether to raise in-state undergraduate tuition.
The UW System voted last June to sustain the freeze through the current academic year. Evers told reporters in Middleton last week that his budget contains enough funding to sustain the tuition freeze through the 2023-24 academic year, though the UW System won’t vote on the matter until this summer.
Officials from UW-Madison’s Office of Financial Aid previously said Bucky's Tuition Promise would likely absorb additional costs for low-income students in the event of a tuition increase. However, uncovered students at UW-Madison and low-income students at other UW schools could suffer without additional aid.
Evers’ budget would further expand nonresident tuition exemptions to undocumented immigrants who graduated from a Wisconsin high school or obtained a Wisconsin declaration of the equivalent of high school graduation. The exemption also includes certain Indigenous tribal members or children and grandchildren of tribal members.
Mental health funding
In a December interview with the Cardinal, Evers said he would include mental health funding for all UW System campuses but did not provide a specific amount. He previously allocated $5 million to expand access to virtual mental health services across UW campuses following last year’s State of the State address.
While Evers’s 2023 budget promised more than $500 million for statewide mental and behavioral health services, his budget does not explicitly allocate funding for mental health care in higher education.
In a statement to the Cardinal, Evers said his budget’s UW System base funding increase could be used for continuing mental health services and other campus priorities.
Funding student journalism programs
Evers’ budget includes $2 million for UW System journalism programs. The funding would award programs $1 million annually in 2024 and 2025 for fellowships and graduates, among other uses.
Evers told the Cardinal the last few years have been tough for local media, which he said “play a critical role in making sure Wisconsinites stay engaged about what’s happening in our communities and across our state and country.”
“Having a free and functioning press is every bit as important to our democracy, too,” Evers added.
Phillip Clampitt, chair of UW-Green Bay’s Communication Department, told the Cardinal he would use the funding to bolster outreach efforts for their journalism program.
“Local news still matters, and local nuance in the news still matters,” Clampitt said. ”The local community would benefit an enormous amount from having exposure of the issues and concerns that we have in our region.”
UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication (SJMC) Director Hernando Rojas said the university was not involved in any advocacy processes regarding Evers’ funding proposal but appreciated state support.
“We welcome support from the public and private sectors to maintain the quality and visibility of one of the top communication programs in the world,” SJMC Director Hernando Rojas told the Cardinal.
If Evers’ proposed $2 million is approved by the Legislature, the UW System will allocate funding between campuses.
The Joint Finance Committee helps with the state’s fiscal budget and has the authority to aid funding requests.
Sen. LaTonya Johnson, Rep. Tip McGuire and Sen. Kelda Roys — all Democrats on the JFC – supported Evers’ funding increase for the UW System.
McGuire said funding the UW System would ensure “success long into the future” for Wisconsin. The state is expected to lose 130,000 workers by 2030 as young people move away from the state, a trend that could worsen an existing “brain drain” crisis.
“Investing in UW-Madison and the rest of the UW system in a real way signals to these companies that we are committed to maintaining and growing our world-class workforce in Wisconsin for years to come,” McGuire said.
Johnson said capital projects like the new engineering building “seem like no-brainers.”
“It’s critical that the state keep its end of the bargain when it comes to financial support for UW-Madison,” Johnson said in a statement to the Cardinal.
It’s unclear if Republicans agree, though the party promised to dismantle Evers’ budget following his address last week. Vos said he preferred to focus on reducing overspending.
“In some ways it felt like I was watching Oprah Winfrey,” Vos said. “It was a budget that is absolutely devoid of reality.”
Sen. Roys found Republicans’ response to the budget proposal “disappointing.”
“They [Republicans] declared their refusal to consider the Governor's budget and said they'd start from zero, just as they've done the last two budget cycles,” Roys told the Cardinal.
Evers expressed support for a “significant increase” in funding regarding renovations to educational buildings on campus and other initiatives in a December interview with the Cardinal.
UW-Madison announced last month that the $355.7 million engineering building would provide hundreds of more graduates, attract talented faculty and sustain research programs.
The UW System can only approve projects funded through grants and private fundraising. However, UW leaders are requesting a change to this restriction where projects can be approved through revenue generated by campuses, according to UW-Madison’s budget priorities website.
Crystal Potts, UW-Madison's director of state relations, said UW-Madison’s request for a new engineering building would yield another 1,000 engineering graduates every year. She said the university is bringing forward $150 million in private fundraising and asking for the state’s partnership to cover the other $200 million.
“Chancellor Mnookin meets with the governor, continues to meet and has met with many members of the legislative leadership, continues to meet with the Joint Finance Committee, both houses, and those conversations are certainly going well,” Potts said.
Potts said UW representatives “haven’t had a ton of commitment” for state legislators so far but added there was “a lot of time” in the budget process between now and May when the JFC will likely make final decisions.
Evers’ budget for the UW System also includes:
- $32.9 million towards funding technical colleges.
- $1.2 million for support services to students who are veterans at UW system institutions.
- $1 million to study the creation of direct admission programs that offer Wisconsin high school graduates conditional admission to a UW System based on predetermined eligibility requirements.
- $500,000 towards supporting UW System students who formerly resided in a foster home or group home.
- A compensation plan that would raise state employee and UW employee pay by 5% in the fiscal year 2024 and 3% in the fiscal year 2025.