Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) ended a freeze on tuition increases while also largely rejecting Gov. Tony Evers’ proposal to inject a massive investment of state funds into the University of Wisconsin System. Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma) tried to justify this, saying that if in 1981 she was able to work multiple jobs to pay her way through UW-River Falls and pay off her student loan debt, current students can too.
The JFC voted 11-4 along party lines to reject Evers’ plans to spend millions more dollars on the state’s colleges and universities. Instead, Republicans are ending the tuition freeze with no caps on increases or guidelines for the UW System on setting tuition. They approved spending $5 million to create a nurse educator loan program and $2.5 million on the state freshwater collaborative.
Republicans also nixed an Evers proposal to expand a program at UW-Madison that helps low income students pay tuition.
Democrats sat helplessly as Evers’ budget was cut in another state agency, but that didn’t stop them from putting up a fight.
“The only way we continue to grow as a state, both economically and in numbers, is to make sure that the doors are open when people knock,” Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point) said, “is to make sure that there’s opportunity from Superior down to Beloit, if you want to go on to higher education, and then stay here in Wisconsin, and help make Wisconsin a better place to live.”
Despite the Republicans failing to provide a requested budget increase, UW System administrators said they appreciated getting the long-requested end to the tuition freeze.
“By not extending the $45 million annual budget reduction and by not further mandating a tuition freeze, the budget committee offers the UW System flexibility to develop talent, generate life-changing research and deliver the education students expect and families deserve,” UW System interim President Tommy Thompson said. “Besides its people, the University of Wisconsin is the state’s greatest asset and we will never relent on our efforts to improve the lives of every citizen in Wisconsin by making the UW System the best it can be.”
Throughout the debate, Republicans touted their own ability to pay their way through college while working several jobs as they cut and slashed through programs meant to make it easier for Wisconsinites to afford college.
Felzkowski said she made $4.80 an hour after college but had to get a second job to help pay off her loans — an option she suggested was still available to current graduates.
“I graduated high school in 1981, and went to college. And no, my parents did not pay for my education,” Felzkowski said. “I paid for my education. And I graduated with student loan debt.”
“And here’s a really wild idea,” she continued. “I graduated, I got a good job, just to date myself a little bit, I was making $4.80 an hour and it was a good wage. That wasn’t going to support me and pay off my debt. So here’s a wild concept, I got a second job. I waitressed and I tended bar.
And that money went towards my college debt. So that when I got married and started a family that wasn’t hanging over the top of me.”
Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), who attended a community college before transferring to Lakeland College to play Division III basketball, said he was also able to work and pay his way through school and that means college shouldn’t be fully paid for by the taxpayer — but that families do need help.
“There’s no reason that my father, the garbage man, has to subsidize my accounting degree,” he said. “But at the same time, middle class families should not be having to skip things like an annual family vacation or having more protein on the table because the cost of the University of Wisconsin System is at the cost of UC Berkeley. That’s not acceptable. So there’s not a black and white here, there’s a big gray area.”
But Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), who noted she worked three jobs while in college, pushed back on Felzkowski and Kooyenga, saying that the failure to fund programs that help people afford college is going to hurt Wisconsin in the long run.
“That attitude is the exact reason that we have a shortage in nursing, in social workers, and dentists, in physicians, in school psychologists, because those bright minds that are out there, that just need a little bit of help, because they can’t afford college,” Taylor said. “So that type of attitude will continue to allow us to see shortages in all of those skilled areas that we so desperately need filled.”