University of Wisconsin System President Kevin Reilly asked the Legislature Thursday to avoid capping tuition, although he assured lawmakers students would see the smallest tuition increase in recent years.
Reilly told the Joint Finance Committee that lawmakers should keep the proposed $181 million investment for UW System in Gov. Scott Walker’s budget. Doing so would ensure students do not see tuition rise by larger amounts, he said.
“We appreciate this proposed reinvestment, and our students will appreciate it too,” Reilly said. “If the governor’s proposed budget passes as is, we could see the lowest tuition increase in the UW in a decade, which would clearly be welcome news to our 180,000 plus students and their families, some of which are here.”
A group of students sat in the committee room wearing red “Cap Tuition At UW” shirts. United Council of UW Students has been pushing for a tuition cap, as Walker removed the 5.5 percent cap he had put in the last biennial budget.
Reilly said he has had conversations with United Council already, seeking to set an acceptable amount for tuition to increase.
Reilly asked lawmakers for flexibility in tuition, especially given the flexibility the UW System already has over its compensation and other areas.
“We’ve at least opened the discussion so we could … what I call ‘self-cap’ if we can reach some agreement on that,” Reilly said. “Theoretically, I don’t like the idea of a cap, but practically, I’d love to agree with students on what a reasonable tuition increase would be and cap it at that.”
United Council Government Relations Director Dylan Jambrek said UW System officials have hinted to an increase between 2 and 4 percent. But he pointed out that goal could change if the Legislature reduces UW System spending, opening up a possibility of double-digit increases.
Jambrek said the only way to ensure tuition increases stay low is with a statutory cap from the Legislature. An agreement between Reilly and United Council, he said, could also change when the Board of Regents decides on tuition increases this summer.
“We do appreciate President Reilly’s commitment to not increasing tuition significantly … but he’s got a full Board of Regents,” Jambrek said.
Reilly’s comment was in response to a question from Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, who asked Reilly why he opposes capping tuition, given that universities are already “saddling” students with tens of thousands of dollars in debt.
Mason acknowledged, however, UW System faculty are paid 18 percent below the national average, an area Reilly has said is a “top priority” for keeping quality high.
But not all lawmakers, such as Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, agreed it was important to increase pay for UW System faculty. He said the last budget should have helped UW System rein in some expenses and keep tuition low.
“There’s families struggling in Wisconsin, and a lot of those families that are struggling have students in UW-Madison,” Kooyenga said. “I think … you phrase it in a sense of [general purpose revenue] and … tuition, but you also have expenses, and we gave you the tools to manage those expenses.”
Among those tools were increasing contributions from staff for retirement funds and benefits, which came from Walker’s budget two years ago.
Reilly emphasized UW System has used those savings, has cut compensation for the last four years and has had eight years of furloughs. He said all of that has led to the current state of low faculty pay and if that continues, faculty would continue to leave.
Rep. John Klenke, R-Green Bay, also asked UW System to continue focusing more on renovation of buildings, rather than adding new buildings on campuses that students would eventually pay for.