- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

WAUKESHA, Wis. (AP) - Tuition for graduate students and nonresidents would increase by at least several hundred dollars next year at most University of Wisconsin System campuses under a plan a regents committee approved Thursday to help the schools brace for $300 million in cuts Gov. Scott Walker has proposed in his budget.

The regents’ finance committee unanimously approved increases at UW-Madison as well as schools in La Crosse, Milwaukee, Parkside, Platteville, River Falls, Stevens Point, Stout and Whitewater during a meeting at UW-Waukesha. The full Board of Regents will take up the increases Friday. The increases vary by school and graduate programs.

The committee approved the satellite schools’ proposals with little discussion. Regent David Walsh said he believed the chancellors had done their research and understood what their individual markets would bear.

UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, however, proposed a four-year plan that called for raising nonresident undergraduate tuition by $10,000, to $35,523, and graduate tuition by thousands of dollars by the 2018-2019 academic year. Blank told the committee that UW-Madison is far cheaper than peer institutions and it’s time to change. UW-Madison’s resident, nonresident and graduate tuition rates ranked last in the Big Ten this academic year, according to UW System data.

The committee approved only the first two years of Blank’s plan, which would translate to a $6,000 jump for nonresident students and generate $40 million more for the system’s flagship school by 2016-17.

Regent Tim Higgins said he wanted to put the brakes on after two years to give regents an opportunity to study the effects on enrollment.

Regent Jose Delgado resisted, saying a four-year plan would help students plan. Walsh backed him up, saying the committee was micro-managing Blank’s plans and the regents can adjust nonresident and graduate tuition whenever they please. Walsh also questioned whether Blank would need to adjust the increase to raise the money she needs in two years rather than four. Blank responded that she didn’t know.

Regent Margaret Farrow said coming out with a four-year plan would look too heavy-handed and could alienate members of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee as they revise Walker’s budget over the next two months. In the end Delgado and Walsh relented and voted for the two-year plan.

State Sen. Stephen Nass, R-Whitewater, vice chairman of the Senate’s universities committee and one of UW’s harshest critics, issued a statement accusing UW-Madison of “mugging” middle-class, out-of-state students.

Associated Students of Madison, UW-Madison’s student government, issued a statement Tuesday opposing Blank’s plan, saying it would price students out of school and it’s unclear how campus administrators would use the extra money. An ASM spokeswoman didn’t immediately return an email Thursday seeking comment on the move to scale the plan back to two years.

The proposals come as campus officials look for ways to absorb $300 million in cuts Walker has proposed for the system over the two years that end July 1, 2017. Walker has promised to decouple the system from state oversight in return, a move that system officials have long sought, but they say the cuts would devastate their operations.

Campus leaders anticipate they won’t be able to raise resident tuition to cushion the blow. The Legislature froze those rates two years ago after learning system officials had built massive reserves while raising tuition year after year. Walker’s budget would extend that freeze through mid-2017, but the regents can raise out-of-state and graduate tuition as much as they want.

Walker’s cuts aren’t certain. The Legislature’s finance committee is about to begin making revisions to his budget before passing it on to the full Assembly and Senate for approval early this summer. Assembly Republican leaders have said they don’t think granting the system autonomy would serve any purpose and the cuts are too deep.

UW System President Ray Cross still tried to make the case for autonomy in a speech to all the regents at UW-Waukesha on Thursday afternoon. He said the flexibilities in the budget would eliminate excessive restrictions and help save up to $20 million.

He warned the regents, though, that autonomy must come with accountability. He said system officials are considering offering lawmakers data tracking graduation and retention rates, degrees granted, students taking remedial math, alumni satisfaction and affordability. He also stressed that there’s hope the finance committee will recue the budget cut.

Walsh chastised Cross, saying he hasn’t explained to the public how devastating the cuts would be and he can’t declare victory if he succeeds in shrinking them to something like $250 million. He also complained that the system needs far more flexibility than what Walker would give it.

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