Report: UW System schools are falling behind their peers

MADISON, Wis. — Freezing tuition at the University of Wisconsin without adding more state funding to offset the loss has contributed to the system falling behind its peers and hurting its competitiveness, according to a report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum released today.

Over the past decade, Wisconsin’s public higher education system has failed to keep pace with regional and national counterparts in key funding areas, and the risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to only worsen the situation, the report found.

“After years of slow erosion of funding and enrollment, higher education in Wisconsin faces a flash flood,” said the report, which examined funding, enrollment, tuition, research and development spending, and other factors.

It found that net enrollment at Wisconsin’s public colleges and universities had fallen by 13% in 2019 from its high in 2011, which was more than twice the national average. Enrollment at UW-Madison increased over those years but still lagged behind its peers, it said.

After decades of rising tuition, then-Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2013 enacted a freeze for resident undergraduates that remains in place. Since then, UW-Madison has had the third-lowest in-state undergraduate tuition and fee increase among 35 peer public research universities, the report said.

Also over that time, UW-Madison’s state funding dropped by 7%, which was the largest drop among those 35 institutions. The university has not asked for the tuition freeze to be lifted in its next budget due to uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Interim-UW President Tommy Thompson has asked the Legislature for the ability to borrow up to $1 billion to help offset losses caused by the pandemic, along with $100 million in new funding. The report found that every other state allows at least some borrowing, a point Thompson has made when pushing for the authority.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers plans to release his budget in February to the Legislature, which will then take months debating it before passing a two-year spending plan in the summer.

On a positive note, the report found that graduation rates at Wisconsin’s public four-year institutions have improved, students are graduating more quickly, and they are spending less and incurring less debt, the report said. Graduation rates are also increasing for minorities.