We, as students, all know that the cost of college has gotten out of hand. It is outrageous that an in-state student at a public school should be charged $40,000 over four years in tuition alone to receive a diploma that may not even help them get a job. Over the past decade in-state tuition at the University of Wisconsin has more than doubled. This is a problem that is occurring across the country, as 48 states have cut funding for higher education over the past decade while the cost of educating students has increased. The Atlantic reported in 2011 that student debt had increased 511 percent in 12 years. The current system of funding students’ higher education is failing. It will have negative effects on the middle class, as graduates cannot consume or save as much if large portions of their income are tied up in repaying debt. If this growth continues, college may soon become unattainable for the middle class. We cannot continue to go down the same path. Drastic action must be taken to save the public university system.
The state of Oregon has taken action that may be a model for the future of higher education funding. Starting in 2015, rather than having to pay any tuition while in school, students will be charged 3 percent of their income for 24 years. While this may sound somewhat steep, it is far better than the system of student debt we currently have, under which a student’s debt payments could theoretically exceed their income. While it remains to be tested, this model seems better for all parties involved. Students won’t have massive debt hanging over their heads. Public schools receive adequate funding and become accessible to nearly everyone. Public schools are also held accountable for their ability to prepare students for the workforce, as funding is tied to graduates income. This incentivizes public schools to better serve the public. Wisconsin could use a system like this to preserve the high quality of its public school system while minimizing the economic turmoil for its students.
There is another way to change the UW system: public investment. If we were to restructure the corporate income tax into brackets with the top half of corporate income taxed at a rate of 11 percent, the 25-50th percentile of income charged 7.5 percent and bottom quartile taxed at 5.5 percent, rather than having the current flat rate of 7.9 percent, we could generate about $90 million (calculated using data from the state’s Budget in Brief.) If we were to raise the sales tax a half of a percent we could generate another $440 million. Between these two changes we could cut in-state tuition in half and give 75 percent of businesses a tax cut. While this would have a slightly detrimental effect on the average Wisconsinite’s disposable income in the short term, I find this solution favorable to the status quo, which will kill the public education system. This solution, however, is a difficult political sell. No one wants to restructure the tax code.
We cannot do nothing. The cost of public college is quickly becoming detrimentally high. Soon the middle class will be unable to afford it and education will become a luxury reserved only for the wealthy. We cannot allow our society to function this way. The Oregon solution has a great deal of promise, and legislators here in Wisconsin should be looking to model a system in its image. We must act or the public university system as we know it, a system meant to serve all the citizens of the state, will die.
Spencer Lindsay (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a junior majoring in political science.