Legislative conservatives' attacks on the UW System harm our economy and deny many young people their right to higher education.
The looming $5.7 billion deficit will undoubtedly bring severe cuts to numerous state agencies, including the UW System. However, we must not be lured into the trap of cutting vital investment spending during this recession. If the state government takes the axe to UW, it will greatly diminish our ability to recover from the current recession and will rob Wisconsin of its future.
By not providing enough state funding for UW and thus forcing tuition hikes upon students, the political right has succeeded not only in denying the American Dream to countless students by pricing them out of an education, but has also sabotaged our economy in the process. Assembly Representative Steve Nass and his brethren in the legislative Flat Earth Society would sacrifice our long-term economic viability for short-term savings.
It is no coincidence that while 27.4 percent of Minnesotans have a Bachelor’s degree or higher compared to Wisconsin’s 22.4 percent, the 2004 per-capita income there is more than $5,000 higher than Wisconsin’s, and the official poverty rate was 2.9 percentage points lower than Wisconsin’s official poverty rate. Higher rates of education clearly translate into economic expansion, but such a strategy cannot be pursued so long as access to our university system is restricted by tuition.
The tuition rates in Wisconsin may be comparatively low relative to other university systems in the Midwest, but they have increased at an alarming pace in recent years. Tuition plus mandatory student fees at UW-Madison for a full year now runs $7,570. And that figure doesn’t include books, room and board, or personal expenses. Add those necessary costs in, and the price of receiving a university education rises to more than $19,000 per year. The increasing rate of tuition has far outstripped inflation—tuition went up 83.5 percent over the past decade, and 13.9 percent in the past two years alone.
Even if the income of a student’s parents is low enough to qualify a student for need-based financial aid, there is still a considerable gap that students are expected to make up. The average 2007 graduate left with more than $20,000 in student loans.
But an ever-increasing tuition rate is only one effect of the lack of funding for our state university system. Another very important thing to consider is UW’s ability to hire and keep good professors. It is no secret that out of all the Midwest's public university systems, UW pays the least to its faculty by far. One of my professors confided to me that if he were to pack up and head out of state, he would get at the very least an instant 30 percent pay increase. It is also important to add that out of all the Universities in the Big 10, UW is the only one that does not extend domestic partner benefits to its faculty.
For these reasons, other university systems are now aggressively recruiting our best professors. UW-Madison alone has lost nine political science professors, seven math professors, five English professors, and six education professors to other colleges for this reason. With them goes millions of dollars in research grants, crucial research, high program rankings, and prestige.
What likely hurts much more than the measurable number of professors we have lost is the number of prospective professors that don’t even consider teaching in Wisconsin because of the low pay and benefits offered. As our professors grow old and retire, we are becoming increasingly unable to hire suitable replacements. If UW’s status as a top-rate institution of higher education is to be preserved, this trend will have to change.
The most belligerent conservatives maintain that making students pay for their own education teaches self-reliance and the principle of fairness. In reality, however, our tuition-based education system only perpetuates established class divisions and is thus anything but fair. Students who cannot pay tuition out of pocket take out loans to go to school and end up paying more than their wealthier, loan-free counterparts because of the interest rates.
Since tuition remains constant after a student is enrolled in 12 credit hours for a semester, many students opt to take advantage of this and overload their schedules so they can graduate early in an attempt to save money. Most American college students now have to work at least part-time during the school year to help pay for college. This means that it is not uncommon for middle and working class students to work long, hard hours on top of an already overloaded course schedule.
Having to work on top of going to school perpetuates inequality because it disadvantages students from working and middle-class backgrounds. Those students have to forgo the resume-building extra-curricular activities that other students who don’t work can participate in. Studies have found that for each hour per week a student works, that student’s GPA goes down by .011 points. For instance, a student who works 30 hours per week can expect his or her GPA to be a whole grade point worse than it would otherwise be if he or she did not have to work.
When students have to take out loans to pay for their educations, the payments start coming due only a few months after graduation. The prospect of having to make expensive payments on loans puts a great deal of stress on today’s students, and forces many to forgo their true aspirations and make career decisions based solely on pay. Not only does this quash peoples’ dreams, but it also contributes to shortages in important, lower-wage professions such as teachers and social workers.
The benefits of education are profound and many: Social research shows that the more educated a person is, the more likely that person is to vote, volunteer, be healthy, not be in jail, save the state money by not utilizing government social programs, and in turn also prepare his or her children to receive a college education as well. Education also works to preserve the democratic process. When people are well educated, they are more likely to participate politically. In addition, they tend to be better informed and can thus make better decisions at the ballot box. Everybody benefits when we educate our youth, and the advantages of having an educated populace cannot be overstated.
The University of Wisconsin has long been the whipping boy of the political right. Perhaps the conservatives’ opposition to fully funding higher education isn’t exclusively an issue of spending, however. Conservative opposition to increasing access to higher education is similar to conservative opposition to healthcare reform and card check for unions in that their contention is politically motivated. Conservatives realize that it would spell their political doom if progressives were able to make higher education an entitlement. They have a vested political interest in taking the axe to UW.
February 17, 2009
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John Ertl lives in Park Falls, Wisconsin, and is a student at Cornell University.