Memo shows huge tuition surplus at UW; GOP fumesRepublican lawmakers vowed Friday to freeze University of Wisconsin System tuition over the next two years in the wake of a new report showing the system has amassed a huge surplus of tuition dollars by raising prices on students for years.
By: By Todd Richmond, Associated Press, Superior Telegram
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republican lawmakers vowed Friday to freeze University of Wisconsin System tuition over the next two years in the wake of a new report showing the system has amassed a huge surplus of tuition dollars by raising prices on students for years.
The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau study found the system finished the year that ended June 30, 2012, with nearly $650 million in reserve across a number of accounts, including $414.1 million in tuition. The report notes system officials identified specific purposes for about $332 million of the tuition surplus, including technology purchases, financial aid and investing in a new program to give students credit for work experience and other life knowledge. But the system did not provide a timetable for those payouts, the report said.
The report went on to say the system had a $393.3 million tuition surplus as of mid-2011 and a $212.8 million tuition surplus as of mid-2009.
The system built the surpluses as it steadily increased tuition rates, citing dwindling state aid and the need to recruit and retain top-tier faculty with competitive compensation packages.
The Board of Regents has raised base tuition across the system's four-year schools by 5.5 percent annually since the 2007-08 academic year. The increase has been steeper at schools such as UW-Madison that levy additional charges on top of their base tuition. A year of tuition for a UW-Madison resident undergraduate cost $9,273 this year, up nearly 8 percent from last year and more than 16 percent from the previous year, according to the fiscal bureau.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, along with Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and the Republican co-chairs of the Legislature's powerful finance committee issued a joint statement ripping system administrators for raising tuition despite the surplus. They promised to freeze tuition in the upcoming 2013-15 budget and launch an investigation into system finances.
"Our state deserves better from the institutions that are educating our students and future leaders," the statement read. "It is not only unfair to the students and their parents who keep getting hit with tuition hikes; it's unfair to the taxpayers of Wisconsin."
Rep. Stephen Nass, R-Whitewater, chairman of the Assembly colleges and universities committee and a frequent UW System critic, called for a four-year tuition freeze. He demanded the regents fire system President Kevin Reilly.
"President Reilly and the Board of Regents knowingly jacked up tuition ... on Wisconsin families over three years even though the funds weren't needed," Nass said in a statement. "These actions are nothing short of a betrayal of the public trust."
The fiscal bureau report mentions that Reilly and the regents are working to create a committee to develop reserve goals and reporting requirements. A system spokesman didn't immediately return a telephone message. Board of Regents President Brent Smith didn't immediately respond to an email or a message left at his office after hours Friday.
Shortly before the fiscal bureau released the memo, Reilly issued a statement saying Republican Gov. Scott Walker's executive budget provides the system with enough money that he would recommend the regents limit tuition increases to 2 percent annually in each of the next two years. System officials asked the governor for an additional $37 million in the 2013-15 budget; he laid out an additional $181.3 million.
"Students are making decisions now about college," Reilly said in the statement, "and we need to send the message now that a high-quality UW education will remain accessible and affordable."
The finance committee is about to start revising Walker's budget ahead of a full vote in the Legislature. It's unclear how much committee members will hand the system in light of the report.
Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, who sits on the committee, issued a statement apologizing to students, saying lawmakers cannot trust the regents on tuition issues.
Reilly's remarks about a 2 percent increase left Grothman shaking his head. System officials clearly don't care about people still struggling with student loans when they're in their 40s and "a lot" of people within the system ought to be fired, he said in an interview. He didn't specify who.
"Come on, pal," Grothman said. "To come back and say we need another 2 percent upper after this?"
The governor's office released a statement saying he'll ask legislators for two-year freeze.
"It is very concerning to learn the UW System has been running a surplus balance of this size, especially at a time when students, families and lawmakers have continually heard from the UW System about the need for more money to offset 'devastating cuts,'" the statement said.
Students welcomed talk of a tuition freeze. The United Council of UW Students, a statewide student advocacy group, said the report shows tuition could be lowered.
"Tuition money should be going into the classroom to serve students," the group's president, UW-Stevens Point student Geoff Murray, said in a statement, "not going unused in a reserve account."