- Associated Press - Thursday, June 9, 2016

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - University of Wisconsin System students will spend more on fees, housing and food this fall under a new annual budget that regents approved Thursday as they grapple with ways to raise money in the face of a tuition freeze and deep state cutbacks.

The Board of Regents unanimously approved the system’s 2016-17 spending plan with little discussion during a meeting at UW-Milwaukee. It will increase student fees at the system’s 13 four-year campuses by an average of $59 per student. UW-La Crosse students will face a $259 increase, by far the largest at any of the schools, to cover the cost of a new student center and new field house.

Julie Gordon, the system’s interim vice president of finance, told the regents that 70 percent of the fee increase will fund building projects like UW-La Crosse’s. Other increases were approved by student referendums, she added.

Room rates will increase by an average of $109 per student; UW-Eau Claire students will see the largest increase, at $274. Meal plan costs will rise by an average of $8 per student, with UW-Milwaukee students facing the largest increase, at $98.

Students at the system’s 13 two-year campuses will see an average fee increase of $12, a $30 increase for their meal plans and a $15 increase in room rates.

Tuition will remain flat at 25 of the 26 schools thanks to a rate freeze Republican Gov. Scott Walker imposed three years ago. The only exception is UW-Stevens Point, where students approved a tuition increase via referendum last fall, as allowed by the state budget. As a result, freshmen and sophomores will see a $400 tuition increase and juniors a $200 tuition increase. Seniors’ tuition will remain at 2015-16 levels.

Overall, students at the four-year schools can expect to pay an average of $206 more next year, bringing the average overall cost to attend a UW four-year school in the next school year to $15,291. The system budget as a whole will grow by about $37 million, to $6.2 billion, thanks in part to an influx of $160 million that was left over from the previous year.

The system should finish the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2017, with $622.3 million on hand, down from an estimated $782.6 million at the end of this fiscal year later this month.

It looks like more increases for students are on the way. The regents finance committee, meanwhile, unanimously approved a proposal Thursday to raise students’ application fees. UW-Madison’s fee would increase $10 to $60; the remaining schools’ fees would increase $6 to $50. The full board is expected to sign off on the plan Friday.

The regents did vote unanimously Thursday to ask the Higher Educational Aids Board to include an additional $12.7 million for student financial aid in its 2017-19 budget request to Walker this fall. The extra money would raise the average award in the Wisconsin Grant-UW program from $1,773 to $2,161. Regent Gerald Whitburn called the increase overdue.

The system has been scrambling to generate revenue since Walker froze undergraduate resident tuition rates in the 2013-15 state budget. Average undergraduate tuition had been increasing at a rate of about 6 percent year before Walker imposed the freeze.

The state budget Walker signed last summer extended the freeze through mid-2017. That spending plan also slashed $250 million from the system. According to system data, state aid to the system for 2016-17 will ring in at about a billion dollars less than in 2007-08.

In April, the regents approved raising tuition for graduate and out-of-state students at La Crosse, Milwaukee and Whitewater as well as out-of-state tuition at Platteville and Stout.

“We’re not doing our job and making sure (the system) is properly funded,” said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, a Middleton Democrat who sits on the Legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee. “(Walker) gets campaign commercials that he froze tuition but he doesn’t tell you the reality that the UW has to raise its fees. It’s not fair but the system has to do what it has to do.”

Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said Democratic criticism is hypocritical since they did nothing to curtail rising tuition.

The governor is considering providing more money for the system based on performance in the next state budget, Evenson said. Walker plans to reveal details when he unveils his budget early next year, he said.

System officials didn’t release the budget publicly until the regents began discussing it Thursday. They posted background material on all other agenda items for the two-day meeting days ago.

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Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.co/trichmond1

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