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Typical University of Wisconsin Oshkosh students are like most throughout our UW System. Many are first-generation students, holding down a job or two and paying their way through college. This year, they have been asked to endure a 5.5 percent tuition increase, and most have, with little to no protest, been willing to make the additional contribution.

What they never expected is that the state supplying their quality education would unintentionally repurpose that financial sacrifice as a kind of rainy day revenue to fill in an 11th hour budget chasm.

This is cause for alarm and reason to rally around UW System students in Wisconsin. All year, difficult decisions and sacrifices have been made by state leaders, legislators and government employees. We now face additional, serious state revenue shortfalls. They threaten additional, dangerously disproportionate cuts to the UW System with equally disproportionate, negative impacts on our students.

It is time for Wisconsin community, political and business leaders to join Chancellors and UW System administrators in demanding fair treatment of our students, such vital drivers of our state’s economic recovery and quality of life.

Is tuition investment or state’s rainy-day revenue?

The Department of Administration’s recently-announced use of a state budget lapse, an additional cut to state government entities, demands a highly disproportionate reduction from the UW System – between $65.8 million and $113.3 million on top of the $250 million UW System already cut to close the state’s 2011-2013 biennial budget deficit.

The lapse itself is not a surprise, but what is startling is our Department of Administration’s proposal to have UW System institutions defray 38 percent of it when our Universities command only 7 percent of state GPR revenue. What becomes clearer and clearer is the additionally disproportionate burden this places on our 180,000 public University students.

From UW Oshkosh to UW Superior to UW Milwaukee and all UW System institutions and colleges in-between, students are enduring, on average, 5.5 percent tuition increases in Year One of the biennium. The increases will generate approximately $37.5 million in 2011-12. No decisions have been made regarding the Year Two of the biennium. But should our Board of Regents consider a second, similar, 5.5 percent increase, the total additional revenue generated through students would be approximately $75 million, helping offset less than one-third of the system’s $250 million in state reductions.

Comparatively, the minimum budget lapse reduction currently expected of UW System is $65.8 million and could be as high as $113.3 million, totals that would essentially wipe out the $75 million in new tuition revenue.

This simple analysis sets a horrible scenario for our students. In effect, their tuition increases become rainy-day revenue generators. Any thought of or strategic plan to channel their sacrifice toward minimizing the historic state budget cuts, let alone enhancing University academic or student support programs, is negated.

Students, families and businesses proudly invested in the pursuit of a public University education and degree in Wisconsin did not, and should not have to, expect their contributions to be used solely to backfill budget holes.

Why aren’t UW System students a hold-harmless priority?

What makes matters additionally unfair for our students is their rock-bottom ranking in the list of budgetary priorities.

To our state administration’s credit, leaders have held harmless our Wisconsin K-12 and technical and private college students from the new budget lapse reductions. Rightly so. A highly-educated, homegrown workforce will play an essential role in our economic recovery.

So, we are baffled as to why 180,000 public higher education students are not likewise held harmless from this round of cuts. And, what is more baffling, is why our students are absorbing a dangerously disproportionate share of the lapse reduction compared to a few other sectors of state government that command a large, if not larger, share of GPR revenue. One could argue their fair shares are being unfairly subsidized by UW System students expected to cover five times their share of the budget cut.

An unintentional, yet detrimental erosion to UW Oshkosh experience?

At UW Oshkosh, the unintentional yet detrimental effects of this severe inequity are also coming into focus.

In this biennial budget cycle featuring plenty of rhetoric about “rainy days,” we planned to turn to our responsibly managed reinvestment funds as part of our solution to close our $12 million share of the UW System’s $250 million biennial budget shortfall. Through smart business practices and good decision-making, our campus community has collectively conserved and fortified these reinvestment funds to help UW Oshkosh students through difficult times.

Unfortunately, it is now those very funds long reserved for protecting and enhancing high-impact student support, developing new academic programs and bolstering advising and counseling initiatives that are jeopardized. This is one more inequity our students are unintentionally enduring: Further erosion of their educational experience.

The $2.3 million to $3.7 million UW Oshkosh must further exact from the remaining eight months of this 2011-12 academic year as its share of the budget lapse endangers our original application of strategic reinvestment, or rainy-day, funds to:

  • Enhance funding for our Student Titan Employment Program, a very successful, innovative University jobs program giving students hands-on, high-impact learning opportunities while often working alongside staff and faculty in departments related to their degree and career pursuits. Not only is the program valuable to students’ experience, the pay it supplies provides a direct offset for increases in tuition.
  • Fortify academic advising, tutoring and counseling for students to improve their retention and job placement after graduation from UW Oshkosh.
  • Contain the constant pressure of increasing class sizes while expanding courses and the number of seats available for more students.
  • Assure timely graduation and deliver results on legislative Growth Agenda priorities, such as improving our retention and graduation rates and reducing time-to-degree.

Can we rally around our students?

Chancellors and UW System leaders are resolved to do all we can to minimize the cuts we face within this new budget lapse (Link to UW System’s alternative lapse-base reduction proposal). We will work in cooperation with legislative leaders. We are not seeking exemption from these additional cuts but assurance that we and our students will contribute a proportionate, fair share.

This is also an opportunity for our state to rally around our students.

We were reminded of something important earlier this year after the resounding success of the Wisconsin Idea Partnership campaign to preserve a unified UW System of four-year institutions, two-year colleges and the UW Extension. To truly demonstrate our state’s commitment to an easy-access, high-quality, affordable public higher education for our students in tough times, we need the complementary and courageous voices and support of our community and business leaders.

If they are not one of the 180,000 UW System students themselves, these men and women are the mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, sisters, brothers, husbands, wives, partners, relatives, neighbors, friends, co-workers and employers of UW System students. They understand that their prosperity is directly connected to that of our students.

We can all play a role in urging our legislators to make sure we do not undermine Wisconsin’s future by expecting our UW System students to bear an extraordinarily unfair brunt of the state’s budget burden.

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