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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

What's the context behind the UW System's first tuition increase after a 10-year freeze?

Students in class at UWM in fall 2021.
Emily Files
Students in class at UWM in fall 2021.

The University of Wisconsin System is increasing tuition for in-state undergraduate students by about 5% next school year.

That may not sound like a big change. But it’s the first time in 10 years that the UW System has increased in-state tuition.

Republicans in the Legislature put a freeze on tuition in 2013. The freeze was lifted in 2021, which allowed for this increase.

What the tuition increase means for students

Tuition is slightly different at each UW campus, and each campus is raising tuition by slightly different amounts.

At UW-Madison, in-state tuition for undergrads is going from about $9,300 to about $9,600. In Milwaukee, it’s going from about $8,100 to $8,500. So UW students will be paying, on average, about $400 more in tuition next year.

UW System

This is just the basic tuition cost for a full-time student — room and board costs more. At UWM, for example, the total sticker price with tuition, fees, housing and meal plan is about $21,000 per year.

Students aren't thrilled about the tuition increase news.

"I’m not super in love with the increase of tuition just because I think it’ll make it more inaccessible for people to go to college within their own state," said UW-Milwaukee freshman art major Austin Christensen.

Christensen didn’t know that tuition had been frozen for 10 years and feels unlucky that it’s happening right now.

Another UWM student, sophomore Alejandra Martinez, pointed out that nursing majors like herself already pay extra. She’s not happy that UWM is increasing tuition and fees by about $400 next year.

"That’s significant, I feel, for students who are working in the summer or have to do it on their own," said Martinez. "It might put them back a little bit, or force them to take a semester off."

Why the UW System is raising tuition

The UW System has two major sources of revenue: state funding and tuition dollars. State funding has not kept up with inflation, and tuition has been frozen for 10 years. That means campuses have been drawing down their savings or making cuts.

UW System President Jay Rothman explained the reasoning behind the tuition increase at a legislative hearing.

"After more than a decade of frozen tuition rates and as costs have increased and inflation has accelerated, it is essential we seek this increase for the long-term financial viability of our universities, and to sustain the quality of education, research and services that we provide," Rothman said.

With frozen tuition revenue, UW campus leaders say they can’t offer competitive pay to get the best and brightest professors, and they can't provide the level of mental health services and financial aid that students need.

At the UW Regents meeting last week where this tuition hike was approved, Regent President Karen Walsh talked about a conversation she had with a student. The student said she wasn’t able to get into some of the classes she needed for her major because they would fill up quickly.

"I replied to her, what you’re seeing and what you’re experiencing is the other side of the bright, shiny coin called the tuition freeze," said Walsh. "I think up until that moment, the students that were present didn’t see a connection between those two things. Not only that, but also, 'I need to go talk to a counselor because I’m stressed out.' Well, there aren’t as many as there used be."

One point to keep in mind: the tuition sticker price is often not the price students are paying.

UW-Madison education policy professor Taylor Odle, who studies college access and financial aid, tweeted that raising tuition allows colleges to use money from students who can afford to pay more to subsidize tuition for students who can't.

How affordable are UW schools?

According to research from the Wisconsin Policy Forum, almost no other state has done as much as Wisconsin to hold down costs for students. The only other states with lower tuition increases between 2013-2020 were Washington and Florida.

Wisconsin Policy Forum

But that doesn’t mean the UW System is doing enough to attract and keep the neediest students.

The percent of students who are coming from higher income families has increased from a third in 2013 to almost half in 2020. The UW System is educating more rich students over time.

President Jay Rothman said instead of being an economic equalizer, the system is creating a greater divide. He wants to offer more financial aid to change that.

How the increased tuition revenue will be spent

Most of the new tuition revenue is expected to go to employee pay and benefits. The increase is supposed to bring in about $38 million and about $25 million of that will go towards 4% pay increases for employees in 2024 and 2025. Then the rest of the new tuition revenue will be used for things like student advising, mental health services and financial aid.

And one thing to note — a lot of UW campuses will still be pulling from their savings to pay for costs.

Why the tuition freeze in the first place?

Before the tuition freeze, the UW System had been increasing tuition by more than the rate of inflation. Between 2001 and 2011, it increased by 128% at UW-Milwaukee alone.

Then in 2013, then-Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, proposed the tuition freeze because the UW System had a large fund balance, and wasn’t totally transparent about it. So the governor and legislators said, 'You shouldn’t be allowed to increase costs for students until you spend some of the money you’ve saved.'

Originally, the tuition freeze was supposed to last for two years. But it was really politically popular. Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, supported continuing the freeze in his first budget.

How money from the state factors into all of this

The Wisconsin Policy Forum found that state funding for the UW System has fallen as a share of the state’s budget since the 1990s. It used to be the state’s second-highest spending category, now it's fifth.

Wisconsin used to spend more than the national average on public higher education. But the state funding cuts and tuition freeze have put Wisconsin below average nationally in how much it spends on higher ed.

And as the state is coming up on another state budget cycle, the UW System is asking for a $263 million operating increase. A chunk of that would pay for financial aid for students in the form of a free tuition program, which guarantees free tuition to new students whose family income is less than $62,000.

Republicans' response to the UW Systems’ ask

Republicans have not been very positive towards the free tuition program. Rep. Dave Murphy said he worries students won’t have “skin in the game” if they get free tuition.

So we’ll have to see how much funding the state chooses to provide for the UW System in the next budget, and how finally increasing tuition after the 10-year freeze will play into that.

WUWM is a service of UW-Milwaukee.


Emily is WUWM's educational reporter.
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