- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 2, 2016

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - University of Wisconsin System officials are warning that extending a tuition freeze for another two years could result in fewer classes and a longer, costlier path to graduation, putting the state’s future at risk.

Gov. Scott Walker sent a letter to state agency heads July 25 saying he wants to maintain the freeze through the 2017-19 state budget and the system shouldn’t expect additional state aid in the spending plan. Walker is still considering more money for UW if system schools meet performance benchmarks, but he hasn’t said what the schools would have to accomplish to win that money or how much funding would be available.

“Continued budget cuts and frozen tuition cannot be sustained,” system President Ray Cross said in a column released Tuesday. “Wisconsin is at a crossroads. We can either choose to invest in our future, in the future of our children, and in the future of our state, or we can give the university system a lower priority and put our future at risk. The choice is ours.”

Republicans first froze system tuition for in-state students in the 2013-15 budget after word broke that UW schools were sitting on massive reserves while system leaders raised tuition year after year. The GOP extended the freeze through the 2015-17 budget and cut $250 million from the system on top of it, resulting in layoffs, administrative consolidations, reduced advising and fewer course offerings, according to system summaries of the cut’s effect.

System spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis warned that continuing the freeze without aid could mean fewer classes, which translates to a longer path to graduation and higher student costs in the long run.

“The system would not be able to absorb this type of hit for six years straight,” Marquis said in an email.

But Walker said in his letter that he wants to keep UW schools affordable. He also warned that almost all state agencies, including UW, should expect zero growth in their budgets over the next two years. The only exceptions will be K-12 education, state prisons, medical assistance programs and vocational training programs.

“To build on our commitment to student success, we must extend our tuition freeze. This will make our universities affordable and accessible,” Walker wrote.

“As you know, achieving our goals and maintaining such successes require constant discipline,” he added. “Therefore … I am directing most agencies to maintain their (current funding levels).”

State agencies must turn in their budget requests to Walker’s office by Sept. 15. UW regents plan to consider the system’s request during a meeting later this month. Marquis said the request will include new initiatives to address student affordability. She didn’t elaborate on the initiatives, saying in follow-up emails that the request isn’t ready yet but if Walker funds the initiatives “we’ll be in better shape.”

Carmen Gosey, chairwoman of the Associated Students of Madison, UW-Madison’s student government, said she’s worried the system will recruit more out-of-state students who pay higher tuition to generate revenue, squeezing out Wisconsin students.

“It makes admission harder for in-state students,” she said. “The state needs to invest in higher education.”

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said in an email that telling state agencies to expect zero growth in funding reflects a lack of direction. As for the tuition freeze, Barca said it helps students only if the state offsets it with aid.

“Governor Walker and Republicans in the Legislature look at the UW System and see an enemy to be attacked,” said Rep. Dana Wachs, an Eau Claire Democrat who sits on the Assembly’s colleges committee.

Sen. Steve Nass, a Whitewater Republican and vice-chair of the Senate universities committee, issued a statement saying the freeze must be extended to protect families and students from a tuition spike.

The governor will present his executive budget early next year. The Legislature’s finance committee will revise the document before sending it to the full Senate and Assembly for votes. The spending plan then goes back to Walker, who can use his veto power to tweak the document to his liking. The entire process will likely last into next summer.

Bob Delaporte, a spokesman for Sen. Alberta Darling, a River Hills Republican who serves as finance committee co-chair, said she’s waiting for more details on Walker’s plan but has supported the tuition freeze in the past as a way to make college more affordable.

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


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