I have a different perspective of the governor’s current budget proposal as it relates to UW Colleges. Not only do I work in Student Affairs at UW-Marathon County, but I am also a multi-term member of the Marathon County Board of Supervisors, where I chair the Education and Economic Development Committee. It places me in the unusual position of simultaneously being a landlord and a tenant.
UW Colleges benefit greatly from being part of the UW System, but it is important to remember that the 13 campuses of the UW Colleges have a unique partnership arrangement with their host communities. That makes them different than the 11 comprehensive campuses and the research institutions of UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee. Local funding is used to construct and maintain the facilities of the two-year campuses, amounting to millions of dollars annually across the UW Colleges. The 14 counties and three cities are literally UW Colleges partners. They have undertaken these significant investments and ongoing costs because they support the mission of UW Colleges to provide “high quality educational programs, preparing students for success at the baccalaureate level of education, and to be an institution of access.”
In return for their investment, the counties and municipalities rely on the UW System to provide the staff and program expenses that make a high-quality UW education available in their communities. While it may have never been a perfectly fair system, it is one that has worked and it respects the fact that the state does not have unlimited resources. State funding was a far larger piece of the funding for these local colleges in the past than it is today. But it is still a comparative bargain, when measured against the alternative of not having this asset available and judging by the support that the campuses continue to receive. Unlike Wisconsin’s multi-county technical college districts, the burden of supporting each campus of the UW Colleges is far more narrowly focused in the individual counties that host them.
While the system of two-year campuses has been remarkably stable over the years and host communities still regularly make investments in renovation, maintenance and new facilities to house their local campuses, huge and continuing financial challenges threaten the ability of these campuses to carry on their mission in the future. A 2013 assessment report by Huron Education conceded that the ability for UW Colleges to continue to meet budget reductions without “a diminution of service to students, faculty, and staff” is limited. That is no surprise to those of us who are looking at it from the inside, but what is it that allows some to think that further cuts are in order or even possible? What does this mean for county and municipal partners, who have shouldered their share of the agreement over the years, while the state continues to diminish their commitment to the educational programs being housed?
Decisions along the way have exacerbated the inability of UW Colleges to reach tuition targets, which are a significant part of the current problem. Enrollment numbers represent one variable toward hitting a dollar target; the other variable is the per-credit tuition charge. By employing UW System-wide tuition increases and freezes, the disparity between tuition revenue per credit and a dollars-per-student basis at UW Colleges in comparison the comprehensive and research universities in the system has continued to widen. Making matters worse, UW Colleges had its own tuition freezes imposed from 2007-2011 while Madison, Milwaukee and the Comprehensives were increasing tuition annually by figures of from 5.5 percent to as high as 9.3 percent. That makes UW Colleges an even better comparative value to students, but this is a hollow victory if it means that the two-year campuses can’t adequately support their already-lean programs.
Even before the most recent budget proposal, it was past time for counties, communities and the legislators who represent them to insist that the State of Wisconsin again begin acting in good faith on the historic understandings that gave us the UW Colleges in the first place. “A diminution of service to students, faculty, and staff” in an environment where Wisconsin needs to be even more competitive will do nothing but leave more people and our state further behind in the years ahead.