UW System head says budget would keep tuitions low
MADISON Even though the governor's proposed budget could lead to the lowest tuition hikes in a decade, the head of the University of Wisconsin System said Thursday he doesn't support renewing a tuition cap.
Gov. Scott Walker's plan would end the current cap, which limits tuition increases to 5.5 percent, at the end of the current academic year. The budget then would leave it to the Board of Regents to set tuition.
UW System President Kevin Reilly told the Legislature's budget committee that university officials are already working with students to determine appropriate levels of tuition increase. He said the UW was working to be as cost-effective as possible but it didn't need to be hamstrung by legislatively imposed tuition limits.
"I'd urge the state not to put a cap back on right at the point where you determine you want to give us flexibility, and then the first thing out of the box is to say we're going to cap you," Reilly said.
Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, said he is concerned that graduates of the UW System were already being saddled with tens of thousands of dollars of debt.
He pressed Reilly on why a cap wouldn't make sense just after Reilly said the proposed budget, which calls for more than $181 million in new funding for the system, would raise the likelihood that tuition hikes could be the smallest they've been in 10 years.
Reilly replied that tuition levels often depend on other factors, such as how much state funding and financial aid is available. He also said he wants to maintain the quality of a UW education, which includes recruiting and retaining top professors by offering them competitive compensation packages.
Nearly half of the $181 million would come in the form of a so-called flexible block grant, which could be used for items such as salary increases. Another $21 million would fund fringe benefits, facility leases and inflationary costs, and $20 million would go toward initiatives designed to boost economic development.
A number of lawmakers, including Republican Sen. Alberta Darling, peppered Reilly with questions about whether some UW graduates were in debt because they were liberal arts majors and found few job opportunities after graduating. Darling, of River Hills, said the UW System should do a better job of aligning its education system with the demands of the job market.
Reilly said liberal arts graduates may not find jobs in their chosen fields, but can often find rewarding careers in other fields in which employers want graduates who can write well, are comfortable with numbers, have good problem-solving skills and can work well in teams.
Republican state Sen. Glenn Grothman, of West Bend, blasted Reilly's statements, saying higher education for students outside of math and science fields is a "devastating investment," especially when they graduate and make only $25,000 to $30,000.
He returned to the concept of affordability and a tuition cap, pointing to four people who sat silently in the audience wearing red T-shirts that read, "Cap Tuition at UW."
"The kids behind you who are just screaming to cap tuition, they're 100 percent right," he said.
Reilly said the difference in lifetime salary between somebody who has a high school diploma and someone with a college degree works out on average to between $750,000 and $1 million in a lifetime, making a college education a good investment for the vast majority of students.
"We will do everything we can to hold tuition down," he said. "We need to see what investment the state decides to put in."